Looking Up Canal Boulevard and the underpass from the 5400 block.
Up Canal Boulevard
Franck Studios Photo titled, Up Canal Boulevard from the 5400 block (LDL/The Historic New Orleans Collection). Photo shows a Southern Railway’s “Southerner” passenger train, about fifteen minutes after departure from Union Passenger Terminal (UPT) downtown. The Works Progress Administration constructed this and several other underpasses for the “Back Belt” route in 1940. The underpasses created a path for the trains that had no grade crossings with roads. Once a train leaves UPT (or a freight train enters Orleans Parish), there are no grade crossings until it crosses Lake Pontchartrain.
5500 Canal Boulevard
view up Canal Boulevard from the top of the train bridge in the 5500 block (Franck Studios Photo)
This photo shows the other side of the underpass. Traffic heading to the lakefront travels on the right, including an old-style NOPSI bus. While it’s not physically difficult to climb up to the bridge and tracks, it’s not recommended. A Cloverleaf Dairy delivery truck pulls into the street on the left.
THNOC includes their generic record notation for this photo. That lists the date as 1941. That’s not accurate, though, since the trains didn’t pass over Canal Boulevard until after UPT opened in 1954. So, this train rolls out of town in the 1950s. The Southerner followed a route from New Orleans to Atlanta using Southern Railway routes exclusively. The Crescent Limited and Crescent trains traveled from Mobile to New Orleans on Louisville and Nashville tracks along the Gulf Coast.
The Back Belt carries a great deal of freight traffic. The route connects freight yards in Avondale (UP and BNSF) and Metairie (CN and KCS) with the Norfolk Southern yard in Gentilly and CSX yard in New Orleans East. There’s a single Amtrak train, the Amtrak Crescent, traveling this route. Amtrak assumed operations of the Crescent from Southern in 1977. The train runs daily from UPT, arriving at New York Penn Station (NYP) the following day. Here’s the Amtrak Crescent crossing Canal Boulevard, 28-December-2023:
Two engines, AMTK 83, a GE P42DC “Genesis” and AMTK 338, a Siemens “Charger” pull a consist of three coaches, a cafe car, two sleepers and a bag-dorm car. The train will reach New York Penn Station the next day.
All the downtown railroads shifted to Loyola Avenue in 1954.
Downtown Railroads in 1961
Aerial photo of Union Passenger Terminal (UPT), Illinois Central (IC) rail yards, and buildings in the vicinity, 1961. Charles Franck Studios photo via The Historic New Orleans Collection.
The highway at the top is the Pontchartrain Expressway (US90 Business). The expressway leads across the river in 1961, with the opening of the (now-named) Crescent City Connection bridge in 1958. Below the highway are UPT and its tracks, then the Post Office and railroad tracks for that facility. Then other commercial buildings stand at the bottom of the photo. The Illinois Central service yard is below those buildings.
The old Federal Building on Loyola Avenue, with the big weather radar tower on the roof, is visible on the left.
Union Station to UPT
Union Passenger Terminal, Loyola Avenue
This photo shows no real trace of old Union Station, seven years after UPT opened. The city centralized passenger rail operations at UPT in 1954. They quickly demolished the five passenger terminals operating prior to 1954. Mayor Chep Morrison implemented a “burn the boats” strategy. So, the railroads had little choice but to go along. Prior to UPT, Illinois Central and Southern Pacific operated from old Union Station. Amtrak presently operates UPT, station name NOL. Greyhound Bus also uses UPT.
US Post Office
The Post Office facility originally stood next to Union Station. Since passenger railroads carried the mail from city to city, the main post office was next to the train station. The cars on tracks below UPT carried the mail. They’re parked at the back of the post office. The Post Office (now the US Postal Service) canceled transportation contracts with the railroads in the 1960s. The downturn in passenger rail service is sort of a chicken-and-egg story. The railroads cut back passenger trains. The Post Office shifted to trucks and air mail. Which killed the trains? A little of both.
Additional rail facilities
The Illinois Central RR operated the yard near the bottom of the photo. They staged both passenger and freight cars there. An IC train arrived at the station, then IC switchers pulled the cars out of UPT. They crossed over to the service track for the yard, then parked them.
The city razed much of the land visible here below the Post Office. This made room for construction of the Louisiana Superdome in the 1970s. While the downtown site was one of several proposed locations for the stadium, any changes to the area were just on paper in 1961. The city performed a number of land swaps in the area. This avoided having to buy property outright.
While the USPS facility remains, all of its railroad tracks were torn up during Dome construction. Compare the roof of the Post Office here with the current configuration in a map/satellite program and you’ll see the evolution.
A back belt fire broke out on the Canal Boulevard underpass on Monday, 2-October-2023, around 6pm. NOFD documented the fire on Twitter. By Wednesday, 4-October, the damage to the tracks appears to be repaired.
I learned of the incident on Tuesday, when I went to my regular coffee shop, PJ’s, at 5555 Canal Boulevard. The coffee shop stands right next to the underpass. One of the baristas showed me video taken by the barista working Monday evening. Crazy!
The New Orleans Terminal Company (NOTC) constructed “Back Belt” in 1908. It got its name because it’s in the “back” of town relative to the “Public Belt” tracks which run along the river. Southern Railway acquired NOTC in 1916. Southern later merged to become present-day Norfolk-Southern Railroad. In 1939-1940, the Works Progress Administration built a series of underpasses along the Back Belt. The tracks have no grade crossings for its entire run through the city. So, the coffee shop offers a great vantage point for train-watching.
NOFD reported they do not know what caused the fire. Heat warped the track towards the eastern end of the underpass.
Amtrak Crescent #20, 3-Oct-2023
When Amtrak’s Crescent departed town on Tuesday morning, the train came out of the access track that runs along I-10 (between the highway and the cemeteries). When it approached the underpass, the train backed up, so it could cross over to the northern track on the Back Belt.
By Wednesday, the tracks appeared to be repaired as a westbound train pulled by Union Pacific engines moved across the underpass. An eastbound CSX train crossed at the same time.
Here’s this morning’s Crescent #20, crossing over the repaired tracks. Caption from YouTube:
Amtrak’s Crescent #20, ten minutes out of Union Passenger Terminal (NOL). AMTK 199, a P-42 Genesis, and AMTK 164, painted in “Phase IV Heritage” livery. Standard consist, two Genesis, 3 Viewliner coaches, 1 cafe, 2 sleepers, and a bag-dorm bringing up the rear. The train’s moving slower than normal out of concern for the rail replacements made on 3-Tues-2023 because of a track fire.
So, freight and passenger traffic appears to be back.
1925 photo of the the railroad depot at Biloxi. According to the Biloxi Historical Society, the Biloxi Daily Herald reported that the plans for the depot were in the hands of T.J. Rosell & Company as of January 5, 1901. On April 3, 1901, the paper reported that the depot was expected to open in two weeks.
This photograph, by John Tibule Mendes, is listed by THNOC as “Unidentified Location.” To me, anything “unidentified” is a challenge. I put the image out on social media, and local railroad historian and expert Tony Howe replied back within minutes (thanks, Tony). So, that was enough to do a proper search. According to UNO Press:
Between 1916 and the mid-1930s, John Tibule Mendes (1888–1965) was a consistent and curious observer of life in New Orleans. His photographs are archived in The Historic New Orleans Collection.
It’s no surprise that Mendes meandered over to the Gulf Coast.
The Louisville and Nashville Railroad (L&N) owned and operated Biloxi Depot. Mendes likely traveled to Biloxi on an L&N train. L&N arrived and departed New Orleans from their passenger terminal at Canal Street and the river. The Aquarium of the Americas now stands on that site.
The State of Kentucky chartered the L&N in 1850. The railroad acquired the Pontchartrain Railroad in New Orleans in 1871. That acquisition enabled the connection of L&N’s system to downtown New Orleans. The L&N operated local and express passenger trains along the Gulf Coast. Those trains also provided mail service.
After several attempts at restoring passenger service along the Gulf Coast, Amtrak extended the route of the Sunset Limited (Los Angeles to New Orleans) to Jacksonville, Florida, in 1993. The railroad discontinued that service in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Amtrak plans to restore service along the coast in stages. The first stage extends the Sunset Limited from New Orleans to Mobile. With that in place, they would continue eastward.
Private cars on Amtrak’s Crescent are a wonderful treat.
Springtime brings out the private railcars all across the country. With three Amtrak long-haul passenger routes converging on New Orleans, we see a wonderful variety of privately-owned heritage railcars. This weekend was no exception, as two private cars brought up the rear of the Crescent on 5-May and another the next day.
AMTK 161 in Phase I livery for the 50th Anniversary
In the lead are AMTK 161, in Phase I livery for the 50th Anniversary.This was the paint scheme used by the railroad after it consolidated the passenger equipment from the legacy railroads.
AMTK 71 rolled in between the two anniversary engines. It wears the current “standard” livery for the Genesis power, Phase V.
AMTK 130 follows engine 71. It wears Phase II livery for the 40th Anniversary celebration in 2011.
NYC and Georgia
Private Varnish NYC-3
At first, I thought the third engine was a deadhead, then the back of the train explained it. Two “private varnish” cars brought up the rear.
The New York Central Railroad built NYC-3 for Harold Sterling Vanderbilt. the Vanderbilts founded the railroad. The car was built in 1928. The car served Vanderbilt, and later as a “business car” for the NYC. A private charter company currently operates and maintains NYC-3.
Georgia 300, as it is called, is a classic looking heavyweight observation car from the golden era of rail travel that was built by the Pullman Standard Co. shops in 1930. Sporting a Packard blue with silver striping livery, the train car operated as a lounge car named the General Polk on the New Orleans-New York Crescent Limited (operated by the L&N, West Point Route, Southern, and Pennsylvania), and was later purchased by the Georgia Railroad and reconfigured to Office Car 300. The Georgia Railroad used the car in trips to venues like The Masters Tournament and the Kentucky Derby.It ran until its retirement in 1982 after being made redundant as surplus due to the merger between Georgia Railroad and Family Lines.
Transition Sleeper bringing up the rear of the City of New Orleans.
AMTK 39008, a “transition sleeper” car, running on train #59, the City of New Orleans.The car’s design includes end vestibules at different levels. The car connects with the car in front of it on the upper level. These are “Superliner II” cars manufactured by Bombardier in the 1990s. They operate on Amtrak routes outside the Northeast Corridor (NEC). So, two of the trains that originate in New Orleans, the City of New Orleans and the Sunset Limited, operate Superliners. The third train, the Crescent, operates Viewliner II single-level cars. The Crescent travels to New York (Penn Station). The Crescent enters Manhattan via a tunnel. So, it uses the single-level cars.
Transition Sleeper car, connected to a single-level baggage car on the Sunset Limited.
Superliner II Sleeper, with high-level vestibule.
Amtrak normally runs the transition sleeper cars on routes also using standard baggage cars. Long-haul routes like the Sunset Limited require more baggage space than what’s on the lower level of Coach cars. So, the railroad uses the single-level cars that can travel the NEC. To ensure access to baggage, staff can move through the train on the upper level. When they reach the end of the transition car, they return to the lower level and through the vestibule. Since the transition connection is on a sleeper, engine crews use its roomettes for rest and sleep.
Transition sleeper connected to “heritage” car on the Sunset Limited.
Prior to Amtrak, most passenger rail operators ran single-level equipment. When the national rail corporation took over in 1971, it inherited seventy-three “Hi-Level” cars from Santa Fe. Passengers loved these cars, with their all-window roofs. When Amtrak moved to replace the “heritage” equipment, it ordered 235 two-level cars, which became the “Superliner I” rolling stock. Those cars reached the fleet by the late 1970s. They ran on the Sunset Limited starting in 1981.
A decade later, Amtrak upgraded the Superliner I cars with a new generation of two-levels. While the first-gen Superliners were manufactured by Pullman-Standard, that company was out of business at that time. They sold the designs and patents for the Superliners to Bombardier. That company delivered 140 cars to Amtrak. That total included forty-seven transition sleepers. Unlike the standard sleepers, which included full both full bedrooms and roomettes, the transitions only have roomettes. There are sixteen roomettes per car. The railroad sells the roomettes closer to the upper level door to passengers.
Amtrak began the process of replacing the Superliners in 2022. They anticipate having new cars in place by 2032.