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Change the Railroad, but Keep the Train

AN ORIGINAL ©MIKE LUCKOVICH CARTOON FOR NEW ORLEANS MAGAZINE

Acontemporary local variation of the expression “don’t throw out the baby with the bath water” might be “don’t throw out the train cars with the railroad board.”

Revelations of misspending and abuse of authority at the New Orleans Public Belt railway system have led to a shakeup of the operations. Now a new board is in place and it will no doubt make changes. We hope that when the changes are made that one of the railway’s most endearing amenities, a train consisting of two restored vintage railcars, is saved. One car, The City of New Orleans, a parlor car with observation areas at each end, was built in 1927. The second car, The State of Louisiana, is of similar pedigree and grandeur.

For special events, a shiny red Public Belt locomotive would push and pull the cars along the tracks with the highlight being a stop atop the Huey P. Long Bridge. The ride itself, paralleling Audubon Park and the Riverfront before traversing through the older parts of Jefferson Parish on the way to the bridge ascent, was visually informative and, in the world of railroads, historically significant since the Huey P. Long railroad rail crossing is the longest in the world.

As news of the investigations by the state legislative auditor spread, the vintage cars became part of the story.

Unfortunately, the overall scandal unfairly tainted their reputation even though there was nothing overtly wrong with their operation.

We would urge that this special train service survives, if not in the hands of the Public Belt railroad, then maybe under the direction of the Audubon Institute or private enterprise. Either way the Public Belt, which despite the scandals did operate an efficient railroad, will have to be involved since it operates the engines and owns the tracks.

In addition to hosting fundraisers the train can potentially be lucrative as a tourist attraction and could also play an important educational function. We wish all locals could see the city as seen from the top of the bridge.

What happened at the Public Belt is an example of an administrator having way more power than the board that was supposed to be providing oversight. That isn’t an uncommon occurrence on other boards, since administrators control staffs and are closer to day-to-day activities than are board members. For agencies to be responsible there needs to be more balance between boards and administration.

That is an organizational question. We see many changes ahead at the Public Belt, but there should be acknowledgement of the things that the railroad did well. Investigation of the Public Belt began with tips from whistle blowers. In that sprit, the vintage train is one whistle that we hope will continue to be heard.
 

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