Norfolk Southern local L91, complete with traditional red caboose, shoves across a deserted crossing near Woodburn, Indiana on the old Fifth District of the Wabash Montpelier Division. Local freights such as this one were once common, now they are rare sights (even more so with the caboose).
Shove it up the Fifth District
By Brian Schmidt/Photos by the Author
Looking up the Fifth District at Woodburn, Indiana on April 28, 2010, this former Wabash track has seen better days.
While many Class 1 branches are dwindling, Norfolk Southern still has a network of secondary lines Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. However, the creation of the Grand Elk and Jackson & Lansing in Indiana have reduced the ranks of Class 1 branch lines in Michigan and the forever-rumored sale of the entire Michigan Line to the state could thin the ranks of secondary lines even more. This is, of course, a way of life for railfans.
Two decades ago the Norfolk Southern network was a lot denser, a holdover of the Norfolk & Western's assimilation of the Nickel Plate and Wabash. From 1964 through the 1980s Norfolk & Western seemed to have two routes everywhere. Buffalo? Check. St. Louis? Check. Fort Wayne, once a division point on the powerhouse Pennsylvania Railroad, morphed into a major hub for Norfolk Southern after Conrail retrenched in the early 1990s.
Once deregulation hit in the 1980s Norfolk Southern wasted no time "rationalizing" its physical plant. Other branches were still used and some secondary through routes still flew the corporate banner. By the late 1980s, the system map had been pruned back dramatically, but traces of the past still remain.
Officially known now as the Woodburn Branch it was once the Fifth District of the Wabash Montpelier Division. A red-headed stepchild even under the Wabash it was little more than a double-ended branch for most of the twentieth century. Passenger service, connecting Fort Wayne with Toledo, barely lasted into the 1960s. A 1964 Wabash timetable shows no scheduled freights over the line and the longest passing siding to hold just 48 cars. By 1987 the Norfolk Southern Fort Wayne Division timetable gives full operating authority to two daytime locals noting any other train must obtain "permission from the conductor of the local" before occupying the mainline.
Despite years of being hidden under successive layers of Norfolk Southern paint, today's railroaders know their history. Even today when East Wayne Yard near Fort Wayne is plugged westbound trains holding out will be told to "shove it up the Fifth District." Sometimes I wonder if there's not a greater meaning to that when uttered by an over-stressed dispatcher with more trains than railroad to run them on.
The L91 local works the branch weekdays serving the lone remaining customer and a shortline interchange. Forward-thinking, Norfolk Southern kept the largest industry in town, a tire plant, on home rails when it spun off the line to Indiana Hi-Rail in 1990. This kept the local running five days a week up the branch, even when the marginal shortline had no interchange traffic to pick up. One has to marvel at the crew on such a cherry job. Five days a week, weekends off, and on-duty at oh-seven-hundred. This is as close to bankers hours as working railroaders can get! No, this is not a job for the rookie railroader fresh out of training. This crew has earned their nights and weekends home with years out on the road. How long this will go on is anybody's guess.
Local freights like L91 were once common to all railroads. Day in and day out, a network of branch line trains would feed traffic to the mainlines. Seemed every town had a sleepy slow freight with a cheery red caboose bringing up the markers. Today, the local is an endangered species, and the caboose is even more so. The mere existence of the branch hangs by the tenuous thread of our economy, and it doesn't take much to break it.
Standing near a deserted crossing in Indiana, you hear the horn of the slow approaching freight, leading caboose-first. The conductor standing on the rear platform acknolwedges your presence with a slight wave as they trundle across the road. For the time being, life continues as it always has on the Fifth District.