Rail Bus

Photo from April 29, 1999 issue of the Beaufort Gam 
(scanned from Beaufort NC by Mamre Marsh Wilson)
"Norfolk Southern Rail Bus"
from Beaufort Scrapbook by Nancy Duffy Russell
Written April 18, 1999

Many recall the early steam engine trains of Beaufort either because of seeing them, riding them, or looking at pictures of them, but who can recall the rail bus?

The rail bus came to Beaufort in 1935, 1936, and 1937. Nathaniel Hancock Russell, the Norfolk Southern Railroad engineer who brought the first passenger train to Beaufort, was also engineer on the rail bus.

In North Carolina, the Norfolk Southern used two rail buses. One was named the Sir Walter Raleigh and the other one was called the Carolinian. It was the Carolinian that came to Beaufort after departing from Goldsboro. The Sir Walter Raleigh went from Raleigh to Norfolk. The Carolinian came to Beaufort five days a week, and on weekends it went from Beaufort to Marston (now Chocowinity)* and made a connection to Norfolk.

Allan Paul with the Rail Division of the N.C. Department of Transportation, who provided the picture of the rail bus, stated that the rail buses were used for economic reasons during the Depression because they were more economical to operate than the locomotive-hauled trains. The buses took fewer personnel to operate, and the cost of coal and water was eliminated. According to Mr. Paul, Norfolk Southern Railroad was a poor company, and the only way for this system to continue passenger service was to use rail buses. By 1930, regular passenger service was antiquated and worn out, and wooden passenger cars like the ones shown in the pictures of the first train to Beaufort in 1906, were still being used.

In the December 20, 1934, issue of The Beaufort News a front-page article stated that the Norfolk Southern Railroad would run rail buses. According to this article, rail buses were approximately 57 feet long, would seat 52 passengers, and carried a 12-foot mail and baggage compartment. They were built of Core Ten Steel and aluminum alloy, and the cars were lighter than steam cars of about the same capacity. They were said to be luxuriously fitted and provided with every necessary convenience. The January 3, 1935, issue of The Beaufort News stated that the gasoline-operated rail bus had an engine (located under the car) similar to automobile engines. Rail buses were said to have comfortable seats, were heated, had ice water coolers (with those cone shaped thin paper cups), and toilet facilities. The cars were two-toned in color – the lower section painted dark green and the upper portion a buff color. The front door was used for train personnel, freight, and mail storage, and the rear side doors were used for passengers. The rail buses had an engineer, conductor, and porter.

The exact cost of the fare to ride the rail bus is not known, but according to a Norfolk Southern ad in the April 8, 1937 issue of The Beaufort News the railroad company announced reduced fares for train travel – one and one-half cents per mile and half-fare for children under twelve years of age.

The Beaufort News reported that many were on hand to greet the rail bus and that many people appeared at their doors and waved as the rail bus sped along the track. It was stated that children were especially delighted to see this new train, and many rode the car to Morehead City on its return trip to New Bern.

John G. Jones, Beaufort, when asked about the rail bus, recalled riding on the initial trip to Morehead City with Betsy Russell (Sisson), Carolyn Wheatley (Davidson), Sara Potter (Ellington), Albert Chappell, and Macon Snowden. Louise H. Nelson vividly recalled the train and remembered it did not run for a long period of time. When questioned about the rail bus, Eric Moore instantly replied, "It was painted green." Tommy Russell, whose father was engineer, relates many stories associated with the rail bus days.

The Beaufort News, January 3, 1935 issue, forecast the decline of rail services to Beaufort when it declared that if patronage justified the car, it would be a permanent feature of the service; otherwise, it would probably be discontinued. Sources are not available to validate an exact time when the rail bus service was discontinued in Beaufort, but it was thought to be after an accident near New Bern in 1937.

Nancy Duffy Russell
*NOTE: Due to a railroad communication issue, Chocowinity is still sometimes called Marsden. Around 1917, the railway started calling the pivotal location "Marsden", which was easier to spell on a telegraph than "Chocowinity". Marsden was derived from the name of Mr. Marsden J. Perry, a member of a New York financial group that had been back the construction of the Norfolk Southern Railroad. He eventually served as president of the railroad.