Now under scrutiny, railroad raises memories of deadly local disaster
AUGUSTA, Ga. - One of Georgia’s most notable corporate citizens is now the subject of intense national and political focus.
Federal investigators are opening a wide-ranging investigation into Norfolk Southern following the fiery derailment on the Ohio-Pennsylvania border last month and several other crashes involving the Atlanta-based company, including the death of a train conductor Tuesday.
Locally, the railroad also had an infamous disaster: Around 2:40 a.m. Jan. 6, 2005, two Norfolk Southern trains collided in Graniteville, S.C., releasing chlorine gas that killed nine people and injured hundreds. The derailment and crash in Graniteville cost Norfolk Southern at least $58 million. The company was also expected to pay legal fees for the insurer.
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Norfolk Southern President and CEO Alan Shaw is set to appear Thursday before the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works along with several public officials in a panel discussion entitled, Protecting Public Health and the Environment in the Wake of the Norfolk Southern Train Derailment and Chemical Release in East Palestine, Ohio.
Shaw has also pledged to hold a series of companywide safety meetings.
Norfolk Southern was formed in 1982 after the Norfolk and Western Railway merged with Southern Railway. The company, which formerly was headquartered in Norfolk, Virginia, operates 19,420 route miles in 22 eastern states and the District of Columbia.
In 2020, Norfolk Southern, which moved its company headquarters to Atlanta in November 2021, reported an operating income of $3 billion and a net income of $2.013 billion. It employs more than 20,000 people.
But Norfolk Southern’s corporate roots reach much deeper into Georgia history. One of the current company’s predecessors was Southern Railway which, according to the Atlanta History Center, was organized and financed by J.P. Morgan in 1894 and led by Georgian Samuel Spencer.
Southern Railway brought textile mills and other industry to the South, supported Georgia’s agriculture industry, brought the materials which built the growing city, and served a “Who’s Who” of Atlanta shippers like The Coca-Cola Company.
Atlanta was literally the crossroads of the Southern Railway and was located at the center of its large network of main lines, which stretched out from Washington, D.C., to Jacksonville, and from Cincinnati to New Orleans.
The South Carolina Canal & Rail Road Company operated the first scheduled passenger train service anywhere in the U.S. on December 25, 1830. The Central Railroad and Canal Company of Georgia was founded in 1833, and both railroads ultimately became part of Southern Railway.
During the Civil War, railroads were critical to both the United States and Confederate war efforts. Atlanta was a key strategic position as a transportation hub, therefore making it one of the last dominos to fall and ensuring the ultimate victory of the United States forces over the Confederacy.
After the Civil War, railroad builder John Thrasher bought and developed land located north of the city, along the proposed route of the Atlanta & Richmond Air-Line Railway. He named the new town after a former Atlanta Mayor, one of the organizers of that railroad, Jonathan Norcross. And as for the Atlanta & Richmond Air-Line Railway, it became the Southern Railway’s main line.
Long before there was an airport, the passenger trains of Southern Railway predecessor Richmond & Danville Railroad connected Atlantans to the business centers of the Northeast. Southern’s trains were also there for Atlanta during World War II, when over 10,000 people per day passed through Atlanta’s old Terminal Station. Southern Railway’s military traffic during World War II saw nearly 16,000 troop trains carrying more than six million service from 1941 to 1945.
During the 1960s, just after the population of Atlanta exceeded 1 million for the first time, Southern Railway invested in microwave telecommunications and mainframe computers to run its railroad. The Southern Railway System Control Center was located in Atlanta.
Southern Railway was named one of the nation’s best managed companies by Dun’s Review in the mid 1970s.
WANF’s Tim Darnell and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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