Railroad line worth saving from hikers and bikers

Published 10:18 am Friday, February 10, 2017

By TJ Ray

Sitting on a siding near Main Street in Abbeville are five railway cars that may well rust their lives away there. Imagine a planetary visitor landing near them. What would he make of them? Huge metal boxes with heavy iron wheels under each end, one coupled to another. Sitting on parallel ribbons of steel rails that seem warped as one looks down the track.

But it’s not an optical illusion: the rails are a bit twisted as they stretch south toward Oxford. Such was not always the case with that rail line. Once upon a time, it carried passenger trains down through Oxford and on to Jackson. University students could party all the way to games in the state capitol. William Faulkner’s mother brought him to Oxford on a train ride from Ripley and across to Holly Springs and finally to his new home. Car after car of manufactured goods or tons of processed lumber went north.

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In time the rails south of Oxford were abandoned as the corporations that used them moved elsewhere or stopped production. Later the line north of the depot was replaced by a walking trail. Less and less frequently any equipment rolled on the line. A few cars still sit on a siding near the Industrial Park.

The visitor from outer space might be curious enough to measure one of the long cars. The numbers might surprise him — 50 feet long; 10 feet wide; 9 feet high. Each of them might haul 70 tons of goods. While examining the big boxes, he might have thought to compare their capacity to that of passing 18-wheel trucks on the highway. A bit of research would make clear that decades ago the highway advocates prevailed upon the government to put funds into ribbons of concrete and asphalt instead of helping the railroad companies. Mr. Eisenhower’s national freeway system dealt a devastating blow to railroad commerce, though it still flourishes in much of the country.

The result sits silently on sidings in many places, strings of rolling stock capable of much more efficient hauling of heavy goods than trucks.

In time perhaps those distorted rails and the old rotting crossties will be ripped up, and grass will replace crushed rock to provide a hiking path. The cars will be pulled out of Oxford and Abbeville and taken somewhere to be scrapped. And long trucks will pass through town carrying ten new cars south from the Toyota plant — 10 cars instead of the 30 or more that might have been sent on a single railcar.

Maybe, just maybe, some manufacturer who sees the benefit of rail shipping will locate in town and give the line new life. This gem that connects Oxford to the world should be kept in place. Old rails and crossties can be replaced. There’s definitely room in the Industrial Park for a company that does heavy shipping to move into.

In the interim, is it not wise to protect the right-of-way from hikers and bikers?

TJ Ray is a retired professor of English at Ole Miss.