All aboard the last privately run passenger train in US

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It was not a glorious ending. Four, far-from-sleek passenger cars - the last privately run ones in the United States - inched into an Atlanta switching yard, coupled behind a string of freight cars. Down the steps came train buffs of all ages, people sad to see the state's oldest passenger service end, folks who wanted to be able to tell their grandchildren they had ridden a day of history.

The passengers had spent their day aboard walking up and down the aisles and looking out dirty windows at rural Georgia: the farmlands, the woods, the country roads, and the old depots in small towns. They traveled part of the route that General Sherman followed in 1864 on his March to the Sea, when his troops destroyed some 60 miles of train tracks as they sliced through Confederate territory.

''It's a way of life you've always been used to,'' says Virginia Akins of Union Point, speaking of the passenger service. ''I just hate to see it end.''

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From her view atop a hill in Union Point - the halfway stop on the Augusta-to-Atlanta run - she can see a crowd of several hundred people who have gathered to ride or watch the final trip. But how long has it been since she rode the train? ''About 20 years,'' she says.

Georgia's Public Service Commission last month decided that most people riding the Atlanta-Augusta line and its feeder lines were riding ''for entertainment purposes rather than essential transportation.''

A ticket from Atlanta to Augusta (171 miles) costs just $5.74. But train enthusiasts and schoolchildren on outings were about the only people who climbed aboard. The trip could take up to 12 hours - with stops to couple and uncouple freight cars along the way. On many days, when there were no passengers at all, the conductor rode alone.

The railroad, Seaboard System Inc., got permission in April to end the money-losing passenger service. But intervenors in the case, three railroad fans , argued that if the passenger cars were cleaner and not stuck on the end of a freight train, the service would attract enough riders to make it pay. Seaboard said it tried that approach in the 1960s, but only 3 to 5 people rode the train each trip.

But on May 6, the last trip, the train was crowded.

Several hundred people bought tickets for the ride. Some of them leaned out the windows, waving at friends they spotted at depots along the way. There was no diner car; box lunches of fried chicken were sold at the stop in Union Point.

John Nieman, 11, who calls himself ''a railroad freak,'' stood in the passageway of the first car, radio scanner in hand, listening to engineer Henry Martin talk to the flagman back in the caboose.

Sitting quietly in a corner seat, Paul Duren of tiny Redan, Ga., looks back to the years between 1925 and 1940 when he commuted about 20 miles on this line to Atlanta, where he worked for a hardware company. ''The engineer knew passengers all up and down the road. He'd stop at crossings and pick people up.''

Another rider, Elizabeth Monfort, says the railroad right of way came through part of the land owned by her grandfather. Some of his slaves helped build the railroad, she says. (The line was chartered in 1833.) As a child she used to take the train to Atlanta. ''They sold little glass trains, pistols, and lanterns on the train,'' she recalls. ''I wish I'd kept one of those.''

The Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad ended its passenger service between Denver and Salt Lake City on April 23. Now the only privately run passenger service in the US is aboard the caboose of a slow-moving freight train that travels from Neenah, Wis., to Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.

Although passenger services operated by private rail companies have all but disappeared, Amtrak - the federally supported passenger service - has increased its ridership from nearly 16.6 million in 1972 to more than 19 million nationwide last year.

Although Amtrak connects many big cities, it doesn't stop in small towns such as the Georgia communities of Rutledge or Union Point. As of May 6, no passenger train does.

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