Alabama Railroads In "The Heart of Dixie"

Alabama railroads have been operating since 1832 and the state became an important source of traffic in later years for railroads with its many natural resources. During railroad's "Golden Age" the state was home to well over 5,000 miles of trackage although today that number has been sharply reduced. From a railfan perspective the state has an interesting mix of operations from the southern coastal lowlands near the Gulf of Mexico to its northern mountains where one of the state's only tunnels near Carara (also close to Talladega) is located (there are two others located near Leeds). Alabama's rail network is, not surprisingly, dominated by the Class I railroads that operate there. However, the state is also home to several short lines and one regional to railfan. All of this information, and much more, is listed below.

St. Louis-San Francisco's train #108, the "Sunnyland," led by E8A #2017 (the "Pensive," named for the chestnut Thoroughbred that won the 1944 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes), is seen here at Birmingham Union Station on April 15, 1963. Roger Puta photo.

The state of Alabama has its beginnings with railroads in 1830 when the little Tuscumbia Railway, originally horse-powered, was chartered on January 16th of that year to connect Tuscumbria with the nearby Tennessee River. Overall, the little line was just 2.1 miles in length although it successfully served its purpose of moving cotton bales to the river. The railroad was the fourth incorporated railroad in the country and was the first built west of the Alleghenies. With the success of the line it was reorganized in 1832 as the Tuscumbia, Courtland & Decatur Railroad, connecting its namesake cities just a few years later.

Surrounding State Histories






Southern Railway's "Southern Crescent" is serviced at Birmingham Union Station as a Seaboard Coast Line freight, led by GP40-2 #1646, is eastbound in September of 1978. Gary Morris photo.

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Surviving Alabama Train Stations 

Alabama's Current Short Lines And Regional Railroads

Seaboard Coast Line SDP35 #618 awaits departure from Birmingham Union Station with train #34, the northbound "Silver Comet," in February, 1968. Roger Puta collection.

The railroad eventually became part of the Memphis & Charleston Railroad, a system that would come under the ownership of the Southern Railway. Interestingly, today, the original TC&D route is still operated by Class I, Norfolk Southern. In any event, as Alabama's network became established its natural resources began to be tapped with railroads finding sources of traffic from such things as timber, coal, and iron. In later years Alabama would be accessed by several classic fallen flag railroads including (the links below provide a brief history of each company):

A Norfolk Southern freight heads over the ex-Southern rolling west at the former junction with the Louisville & Nashville in Decatur, Alabama during December of 1985. Gary Morris photo.

In terms of overall mileage, currently Alabama railroad mileage ranks somewhere in the middle of the pack. During the heyday of the railroad industry Alabama was home to around 5,300 route miles of rails although today that number has dropped by about 48% to slightly over 3,300 miles (this is actually quite common, as most states have seen a similar decline from their peak mileage in the 1920s). The short table below lists the state's mileage rise and decline.

Today, through mergers, abandonments, and acquisitions Alabama has been reduced to just two Class I railroads, CSX and Norfolk Southern which command 86% of the state's rail mileage although BNSF Railway, Canadian National and Kansas City Southern also have a presence (although their total mileage is less than 400 combined). However, they are not the only two railroads still operating within the state as there are several shortlines found there, including regional Alabama & Gulf Coast Railway.

* Alabama's first operational was the Tuscumbia Railway, a horse-powered system chartered in 1830, the first chartered and opened west of the Appalachian Mountains.  It's initial 2.1 miles opened in 1832 to haul cotton bales from downtown Tuscumbria to a new wharf on the Tennessee River.  The system was later merged with the connecting Tuscumbia, Courtland & Decatur and eventually wound up as part of the Southern Railway.

The state's shortlines include the Alabama & Florida Railway, Birmingham Southern Railroad, Eastern Alabama Railway, Huntsville-Madison County Railroad Authority, Jefferson Warrior Railroad, Alabama Southern Railroad, Alabama & Tennessee River Railway, Alabama Warrior Railway, Bay Line Railroad, Chattahoochee Bay Railroad, Conecuh Valley Railroad, Georgia Southwestern Railroad, Luxapalila Valley Railroad, Meridian & Bigbee Railroad, Redmont Railway, Sequatchie Valley Railroad, Tennessee Southern Railroad, Three Notch Railroad, Wiregrass Central Railroad, and the Terminal Railway-Alabama State Docks.

Taken from CSX business car #10, the "West Virginia," Roger Puta captured this scene of train #101 crossing Alabama's Escambia Bay Bridge on June 7, 1987.

Regarding the Class I carriers, major facilities in Alabama can be found in Birmingham - Boyles Yard for CSX, Norris Yard for Norfolk Southern and Thomas Yard for BNSF Railway - as well as another for NS, Sheffield Yard. While Alabama railroads do not include many passenger trains, Amtrak does currently operate one train through the state, the Crescent, which stops at Anniston, Birmingham, and Tuscaloosa along the Norfolk Southern's main line through the state.

Amtrak F40PH #350 has the northbound "Gulf Breeze" near Atmore, Alabama on the ex-Louisville & Nashville during July of 1990. Gary Morris photo.

There are also plenty of tourist railroads and museums dotting Alabama. These include the Foley Museum, Heart of Dixie Railroad Museum, Historic Huntsville Depot, and the North Alabama Railroad Museum. Lastly, Alabama has a few relic stations still standing, Montgomery Union Station and Mobile & Ohio Gulf Terminal in downtown Mobile (for any history, rail, and/or architecture buff these railroad stations are worth the drive to see). So, if you are interested in either Alabama's railroad history or just looking for something to do you may want to visit one of these places.

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Header Photo: Drew Jacksich

Researching Rights-Of-Way

A popular pastime for many is studying and/or exploring abandoned rights-of-way.  Today, there are tens of thousands of miles scattered throughout the country.  Many were pulled up in the 1970's and 1980's although others were removed long before that.  If you are researching active or abandoned corridors you might want to check out the United States Geological Survey's (USGS) Historical Topographic Map Explorer.  It is an excellent resource with thousands of historic maps on file throughout the country.  Just type in a town or city and click on the timeline of maps at the bottom of the page!

Studying Diesels

You will be hard pressed at finding a better online resource regarding diesel locomotives than Craig Rutherford's  The website contains everything from historic (fallen flags) to contemporary (Class I's, regionals, short lines, and even some museums/tourist lines) rosters, locomotive production information, technical data, all notable models cataloged by the five major builders (American Locomotive, Electro-Motive, General Electric, Fairbanks-Morse, and Baldwin), and much more.  A highly recommended database!

Electro-Motive Database

In 1998 a gentleman by the name of Andre Kristopans put together a web page highlighting virtually every unit every out-shopped by General Motors' Electro-Motive Division.  Alas, in 2013 the site closed by thankfully Don Strack rescued the data and transferred it over to his site (another fine resource).  If you are researching anything EMD related please visit this page first.  The information includes original numbers, serials, and order numbers.