An indelible chapter in the American history book was completed last night as the last overnight passenger train operated by a private railroad company departed Union Station for Atlanta.
The Southern Crescent, operated daily between the nation's capital and major cities of the former Confederacy since Jan. 4, 1891, made its final run during the night as a service of Southern Railway and its predecessor corporation.
Today, Amtrak will take over the train as part of the government-subsidized national passenger network. But the Crescent may not survive for long because the Carter administration recommended yesterday that the train be abandoned forever -- which would mark an end to passenger service to Atlanta, described in the first Crescent timetable as "Queen City of the New South."
And this morning, in Atlanta, Washington-based Southern Railway is scheduling a farewell for the historic luxury train. But the ceremony is a wake.
According to the railroad's schedule, riders on the Crescent's last trip will arrive in Atlanta about 8:40 a.m. to find on the next track a replica of the Best Friend of Charleston -- a train reputed to offer the first regular passenger service on Christmas Day, 1830, between Charleston, S.C., and a point near Augusta, Ga. the Best Friend also was operated by a line that now is part of Southern's rail system. A century and a half of uninterrupted passenger operations will have ended.
At Union Station last night, the train departed on track 24 at 7:23 p.m. -- just three minutes late.
One rider, Shirley Porter, from Salisbury, N.C., took the day off work yesterday to "have a last ride." She took the train here yesterday morning and was heading back home last night.
"If you're from Salisbury you have to love the railroad," she said. Salisbury is the site of a big maintenance yard for the railroad. "There's something about the Crescent that you don't find on any other system. It has a certain air and a certain friendship... it's difficult when you look at the back of the headrest and read, 'Look Ahead, Look South,' and realize this is the last time," she added.
Robert Smith, from Greensboro, N.C., a member of the National Railroad Historical Society and a train buff, had a tape recorder with him to record announcements of the train departure. "The Crescent is an institution... I'll probably lean out the window all night and record the horns... as far as I'm concerned, at about midnight, when we're 25 miles from Danville, it becomes Amtrak. It's pretty sad," Smith added.
Arthur LeMerle, of Hyattsville, was aboard only for the brief ride across the Potomac to Alexandria. "This train and its people are a way of life... it won't be the same," said Le Merle, who works for a hobby store that sells toy trains.
Southern crew members passed out souvenir tickets, commemorating 148 years of passenger service. One rail employe, A. L. McCombs, also from Salisbury, said it was a "sad occasion... but you do your job and it really doesn't matter."
As the train pulled out, a woman was heard to say, "That's the last time." About half the seats were empty, but the old-fashioned dining car, with linen and silver, and menus featuring Southern fare, was crowded.
The Crescent began as the Washington and Southwestern Vestibuled Limited, "ushering in a new era," which included the first all-year train with vestibuled equipment operating in the South.
There were drawing room and stateroom sleeping cars, dining cars, smoking and library cars and observation cars, all equipped with hot and cold running water and gas lights.
In recent years, the railroad has continued a luxury standard but at growing cost. Losses have been running about $7 million a year. And Southern management decided it no longer could justify the expense -- despite a public relations advantage the train brought throughout much of the South.
When Amtrak was started in 1971, all other overnight luxury trains either were discontinued or transferred to Amtrak. The train covers a 1,154-mile route from Washington to New Orleans, with stops in Greensboro, Charlotte, Birmingham, Meridian and other cities.
Ironically, Amtrak plans to expand Southern Crescent services -- at least until the final axe falls on Capitol Hill, if it does. Starting today, the Crescent will operate daily all the way to New Orleans (since 1970, the train has run daily between Atlanta to Union Station and to New Orleans three times weekly).
Amtrak also is adding discount fares, a major advertising and promotion campaign, express package service and complimentary wake-up coffee for sleeping cars.
All this added effort by Amtrak was clouded by the administration's decision yesterday that the train should be halted permanently. "Amtrak is making it a daily service for the first time since 1970 and DOT cancels it," lamented Joseph Zucker, assistant director of the National Association of Railroad Passengers.