Heart of Louisiana: The Public Belt Railroad

Heart of Louisiana: Public Belt Railroad

NEW ORLEANS, La. (WVUE) - For more than a century, the Public Belt Railroad has been moving cargo in and out of the Port of New Orleans and across the Mississippi River. It relies on some historic structures to keep the trains moving.

It’s a journey that will take us high above the Mississippi River and it starts long before the auto traffic is anywhere near the Huey Long Bridge.

Dean Giroir is the Manager of Maintenance and Facilities at the Public Belt Railroad.

“The Huey P. Long Bridge rail portion is 4.36 miles long. What we like to refer to as the West Bank side of the bridge starts right here in Avondale. Then it goes over the Mississippi River, of course, and actually ends in Jefferson, Louisiana,” Giroir said.

We’re riding the rails, not in a locomotive, but in one of the high-rail maintenance trucks used by the New Orleans Public Belt Railroad, which owns the 85-year-old bridge and operates all of the rails that service the Port of New Orleans.

“We’ll do maintenance twice a week, so we will take one track out of service to do maintenance. But all the rest of the days of the week we’re running trains and in 2019 we had about 467,000 cars traverse the Huey P. Long Bridge,” Giroir said.

Before this bridge was here, railroad cars were ferried across the river. When the Huey Long Bridge opened in 1935, it was the largest railroad bridge in the world.

“It was predominantly a railroad bridge. There was not only freight but also passenger traffic that went across the bridge. they also put on the highway lanes as part of the construction, but the primary focus was for rail,” General manager Mike Stolzman said.

Anyone who’s driven across the old Huey Long Bridge can vouch for the fact that they weren’t building that bridge for cars.

“That’s exactly right and they definitely weren’t building them for modern cars. The Model T would fit much better on there than the modern cars of today,” Stolzman said.

Most railroads, eastern and western lines, terminate their service at the river. The Public Belt manages the handoff of rail cars over the bridge and for more than a century, all of the rail traffic through the busy port is moved by the Public Belt.

“We have a fleet of 14 locomotives and within daily we operate anywhere from 10 to 12 locomotors within a 24 hour period,” Transportation Supt. Ike McPherson said.

Another of this railroad’s historic structures is rarely seen by the public. It’s a 1908 engine roundhouse and turntable, something youngsters may be familiar with from Thomas the Tank Engine stories.

“Whenever we have a locomotive that’s maybe facing east and needs to be turned westward, we bring it onto the turntables, spin it around and get it facing in the right direction,” McPherson said.

Over the past decade, the auto lanes of the bridge have been widened and moved a little further away from passing trains.

Riding the rails at 10 miles an hour, you can safely take in the view from the overhead geometry of the steel superstructure to the sweeping landscape that stretches for miles in all directions.

“The bridge is in as good as shape today as it was the day it was built,” Stolz said.

And that’s saying a lot for this workhorse of a bridge, that’s been connecting eastern and western railroads and moving cargo in and out of the Port of New Orleans since the 1930s.

The manager of the Public Belt Railroad estimates that more than 20 percent of the nation’s cross-country rail cars end up crossing the Huey Long Bridge.

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