The Southern Crescent was an overnight long-haul passenger train operated by the Southern Railway between Washington, D.C. and New Orleans, Louisiana, with connections North and West in those two cities. The line was operated as a privately-run train for eight years after Amtrak took over most of the nation's other passenger trains on May 1, 1971. The last run of the Southern Crescent, Southern train numbers 1 and 2, took place on January 31, 1979, with Amtrak taking over the route on February 1, renumbering them 19 and 20 (Southern Railway operating numbers 819 and 820).
History The Crescent has its beginnings dating back to Southern predecessor Richmond & Danville which inaugurated the Washington & Southwestern Vestibuled Limited in 1891, three years before the Southern Railway was created by the New York firm of J. P. Morgan. The new train, one of the first in the Southeast equipped with enclosed end vestibules to protect passengers from the elements while passing between cars, quickly became known simply as "the Vestibule".
The original Crescent Limited train name dates to 1925, trains 37 and 38, when Southern began a deluxe all-Pullman sleeper train (no coaches), equipped with observation and club cars that operated from New York to New Orleans through agreements with several other railroads. Calhoun was not a stop for this limited.
In 1926 it was assigned brand new heavy 4-6-2 passenger locomotives, painted green and gold with the train's name on the tender. One of these elegant Ps-4 class Pacifics, No. 1401, is on display in Railroad Hall at the Smithsonian Institute's American History Museum in Washington, D.C. This locomotive also hauled the funeral train of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945.
The Depression eliminates the Crescent Limited name
The original Crescent Limited name disappeared for four years during the Depression as the railroad downplayed the "luxury" aspect and coaches were added to the consist. The train was renamed the Crescent in 1938 as the older coaches were replaced by new air conditioned equipment . EMC E-6A diesels replaced the famed locomotives in 1941 just in time for heavy use during World War II.
Immediately following the war, the Southern Railway placed huge orders for new light-weight cars to re-equip the trains with, as did most American railroads, and in 1949 the Crescent received new rolling stock. In 1951, the passenger motive power fleet was updated with EMD E-8A diesels. These would haul the Crescent until the Southern turned passenger operations over to Amtrak in 1979.
The Southern rolling stock was the major part of a car pool to service the Crescent, with contributions from The West Point Route (Atlanta & West Point and Western Railway of Alabama) and the Louisville & Nashville, who each operated their respective geographic sections of the route. But passengers were deserting the rails for their new post-war automobiles, and despite the Crescent's quality of service, ridership continued to fall. The railroad replaced green and gold paint with black and white system-wide in 1958 as an economy move. By 1968, Southern was only running ten passenger trains. In 1970, the Crescent was combined with another money-losing train, the Southerner, and the consolidated train was renamed the Southern Crescent. Railroad President W. Graham Claytor, Junior had the train upgraded with green and gold E-8A locomotives with the name embossed on the nose and a focus on Southern hospitality on board.
Southern's rededication to service
In 1971, the year Amtrak was created to save the national passenger system, the Southern was operating only four trains, two between Washington and Atlanta (the Piedmont, trains 5 and 6 - run as a mixed train with trailer flat cars, as well as being used for shuttling motive power on the system), and New Orleans (the Southern Crescent, trains 1 and 2), and two branch line runs, Nos. 3 and 4, the Asheville Special, in North Carolina, and unnamed Nos. 7 and 8 in Virginia, the Washington-Lynchburg Southern Railway remnant of the Birmingham Special, previously jointly-operated with the Norfolk & Western Railway, and which was left an orphan when the N&W chose to join Amtrak. Southern was losing $2.3 million annually but declined to join the infant Amtrak and opted to run their remaining trains for five years before seeking any change, subsidizing the trains with freight profits. The railroad also rerouted the Southern Crescent south of Atlanta via Birmingham over an all-Southern route, rather than Montgomery where the connecting railroads had also decided to get out of the passenger business and join Amtrak. Trains 3-4, 5-6, and 7-8 were discontinued on June 1, 1975.
Losses increase while rolling stock ages
But passenger losses continued to mount, and the fleet of cars and engines available was aging, the most recent dating to the early 1960s. By 1977, when the three lesser trains had already been discontinued (in 1975), Southern Crescent operating losses had grown to $6.7 million annually. Unwilling to invest in new rolling stock or to compromise the quality of the ride, Southern petitioned to end operation on April 5, 1978. Outcry from affected communities and supporters of rail transit forced the railroad to go through ICC-mandated local train-off hearings before halting service, however.
Amtrak takes over
Finally, after satisfying federal requirements, and having negotiated an operating deal with Amtrak, the last Southern Railway runs of the Southern Crescent departed New Orleans and Washington, D.C. on January 31, 1979, passing each other early in the morning of February 1 near Salisbury, North Carolina. Amtrak assumed control of the train that day, renaming the train simply the Crescent. It continues daily operations through Clemson to the present.