While the Oneida and Western Railroad was never an actual operating
railroad it was so interesting, not to mention colorful, that it is
still talked about to this day. The O&W was created by its owner,
the Shamrock Coal Company, in the 1970s which hoped to cut costs by
owning their own railroad equipment and contract out rail movements to
the Louisville & Nashville Railroad, a major southern Class
I at the time (later Seaboard System). Interestingly, the O&W name
did not come straight out of the blue but was a nod to a former
Tennessee shortline that had been abandoned since the 1950s. The idea
behind the plan was to operate
dedicated coal trains, a concept relatively new at that time, and
Shamrock's two-tone mint green trains became legendary. Ultimately,
cheaper freight rates in the late
1980s allowed a new owner to give up the practice. Today, much of the
equipment is still in service although in use among several different
The bright two-tone, mint-green livery of the O&W livery can easily be seen here as SD40-2 #9953 awaits a new crew at Charleston, South Carolina to pull a unit coal train southward to Atlanta during the 1980s.
What led to the creation of the "Oneida and Western Railroad" began in
the late 1970s. The energy crisis of that decade resulted in a rush on
coal, which tended to follow the price of other fossil fuels like oil.
The demand for coal, however, had also been going up since the late
1960s and the L&N specifically had been seeing an increase along its
route during the early '70s as more power plants were being built in
the south. The L&N's primary coal branches were located in southern
Kentucky, western Virgina, and eastern Tennessee although the Bluegrass
State had provided the railroad with the highly sought Btu, low sulfur,
soft coal that provided an excellent profit margin. Unfortunately, the
increasing demand for coal and the yearning by coal companies to move
the product as quickly as possible to exploit the temporary high rates
was wearing down the L&N's lines faster than it could keep them
This caused branches and secondary routes to be literally run
in the mud and to make matters worse the railroad was short on motive
power and cars. In 1979 it was
able to obtain a 22% rate increase after petitioning the Interstate
Commerce Commission (ICC), much to the chagrin of mine owners. The
Shamrock Coal Company, based in Knoxville, Tennessee owned several mines
along the L&N (particularly in the Kentucky), and was growing tired
of the delays not to mention that it was one of those opposed to the
rate increases. However, the railroad was offering an interesting
incentive; for coal companies which provided their own fleet of cars could obtain a rate reduction. Shamrock's president, B. Ray Thompson, pitched a plan
to the L&N to cash in on the incentive; one of its major customers
was South Carolina Electric & Gas and to keep it supplied with coal
the company would provide two, 72-car dedicated trainsets, which even included cars and motive power!
Needing the equipment anyway, L&N agreed to the idea with
little hesitation. Shamrock ordered the 100-ton rotary-dump gondolas
from Youngstown Steel in Ohio while Electro-Motive provided eight brand
new SD40-2s (the most reliable and sought after locomotive model of its day) built to L&N specifications and numbered for its roster, 9050-9057. The two cabooses were constructed by International Car of Kenton, Ohio and built to Union Pacific's CA-11 model
type. While the L&N was the operator, Shamrock still needed to
designate the equipment as its own. So, president Thompson came up with
the idea of using a long abandoned shortline as its name, the Oneida & Western (with reporting marks OWTX), whose trains he had
watched as a child. This historic route dated back to its chartering in
1913 to connect Jamestown and Oneida, Tennessee and eight years later
the route was open, 38 miles in all.
Shamrock Coal's SD40-2 #9950 leads a coal drag under the signal tower and past SY Tower in Charleston, South Carolina during the early 1980s.
It connected to the Southern Railway's famed "Rat Hole" line at Oneida
and at one time carried a wide range of traffic from coal
(predominantly) and lumber to some general merchandise and passenger
trains. Traffic slowly dried up, particularly after World War II and
the O&W was shutdown by the late summer of 1954 with rails pulled up
in September. It was the colors Shamrock chose, however, that
ultimately drew the most attention from railfans and the general
public; a two-tone blend of mint green with the base a lighter color
and a darker tone used for the lettering and trim. For a simple coal
operation it was an incredibly attractive and creative paint scheme.
The trains would come to operate two different routes; an easterly run
from southeastern Kentucky, through western Virginia, and passing
through eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina before reaching the
SCE&G's plants at Columbia, South Carolina and another just east of
the capital city.
This trackage used the former Clinchfield and Seaboard Coast Line
with some trackage rights via the Norfolk & Western; in all it was
508 miles in length. The western route was somewhat longer. It
utilized the former Seaboard Air Line along with the L&N's own lines
from Corbin, Kentucky running southward through Knoxville and Etowah,
Tennessee and finally into Atlanta. From there it proceeded eastward to
Clinton, South Carolina and finally on to the SCE&G's plants; in
all 581 miles. The trains went into service in late 1979 and eventually
came to exclusively use the western routing per Shamrock's request (the
company wasn't exactly pleased with how the easterly connection was
being operated). Daily services continued through the 1980s although
during its final years O&W trains did not always operate dedicated.
(A big thanks to Ron Flanary's article "Why the 'green train'
ran...and why it doesn't any longer" showcased in the September, 2007
issue of Trains magazine as the primary reference for this page.)
Oneida & Western SD40-2 #9957 lays over at the yard in Corbin, Kentucky on May 24, 1981.
With the formation of CSX Transportation in 1987 and Shamrock's
purchase by Sun Coal that same year O&W trains were on borrowed
time. Under Sun, the company began shipping significantly more tonnage
and instead of purchasing new equipment it simply went to CSX to
negotiate a new contract which the Class I agreed to (this was now
possible with the 1980 Staggers Act that deregulated the railroad
industry). With the two O&W trains no longer needed the locomotives
and cars were sold; BC Rail picked up the SD40-2s and Pacific Rail Leasing acquired the cars.
Today, Thompson owns one of the cabooses while the other is fully
restored in its O&W mint green and on display at the Southern
Appalachia Railway Museum in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.