ITSY-BITSY SERVICE — To some people, they looked like insects zipping along. Doodlebugs used to pop in and out of America’s towns and cities. Now a favorite among rail fans, these munchkin “passenger trains” made their runs during the early to mid 1900s. Doodlebugs often consisted of just one unit, a combination of a locomotive and passenger coach. They have also been called “railcars,” “railbuses,” “motor cars,” and “motor coaches.”
Rail companies used doodlebugs when the passenger traffic between two places couldn’t justify a full-fledged train. And state laws across America made them even more necessary, according to the website Mtmuseum.org. State governments often forced railroads to furnish passenger, mail, and express service.
Railroaders first used “doodlebug” as a derogatory nickname. The early passenger railcars “doodled” slowly along local branch lines, making frequent stops. Some would even pick up passengers in front of their homes or drop them off at their favorite fishing holes. The nickname may’ve also been inspired by the appearance of the motor coaches. When painted with stripes, such as yellow & black, the little vehicles resembled insects.
BUG POWER — Doodlebugs were constructed following the development of gas-powered internal combustion engines. Many inventors tried to create self-propelled passenger railroad cars. Some of their efforts paid off, for gas-powered doodlebugs proved successful by the mid 1930s. Why did doodlebugs often depend on gasoline? The answer centers on cost and performance. Large American locomotives usually rely on diesel fuel. This provides the energy needed to move heavier loads, and diesel fuel has also been traditionally cheaper than gas. Nevertheless, diesel engines are more expensive to build and maintain. Thus, doodlebugs usually contained gas engines. They just don’t need the pulling power that diesel fuel provides, and their railroad runs, which were made at low or no profit, couldn’t justify costly engines. Saving even more money, motor coaches also required just one or two crewmembers.
Many doodlebugs carried passengers, although some were devoted to mail and baggage. They also pulled short freight trains and pushed wedge plows to clear snow drifts. As indicated in a message board for railroad buffs, a doodlebug served as a locomotive for some of the cars from the Silver Meteor, a popular passenger train that passed through Jacksonville from New York. The doodlebug met cars from the Silver Meteor in Tampa and then pulled them to Venice, a town to the south. Later, it brought the cars back to Tampa. This service lasted until the early 1970s, according to the message board. Although Seaboard personnel considered doodlebugs to be “pieces of junk” (in the words of the message board), rail enthusiasts fondly recall motor coaches today.
END OF THE LINE — By 1960, the doodlebug population experienced a sharp decrease. Generally speaking, the short-run passenger routes didn’t earn much money, so railroad companies often didn’t want them. An example comes from one of Jacksonville’s major transporters, the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad (ACL). This business chafed at government restrictions that kept its number of local passenger trains high. During the early 1950s, ACL finally received permission to eliminate many of these routes, which short-haul passengers frequently didn’t patronize anymore. By the decade’s conclusion, ACL had terminated nearly every secondary run that didn’t prove essential to its mainlines.
It’s interesting to note that ACL gave doodlebugs little thought. Although the company demonstrated one in 1949, perhaps it didn’t care much about motor coaches since its locals made more money from their mail and express business than from passenger service. This speculation comes from Larry Goolsby’s book Atlantic Coast Line Passenger Service: The Postwar Years.
The Transportation Act of 1958 really hit doodlebugs hard. The federal law limited the power that states could exercise over rail passenger services. Consequently, railroads frequently canceled their branch line passenger trains. Within five years, most doodlebugs had met one of three fates: They were used as unpowered passenger cars, they were utilized as buildings, or they were cut up for scrap. As a message board has indicated, one Florida doodlebug sat in a scrapyard for a long time after Amtrak took over the passenger service from many companies. Seaboard Coast Line tried to find someone to save the motor coach, but no one proved willing. Consequently, the vehicle was dismantled. What an unfortunate loss to the state’s railroad history!
By the way, the term “doodlebug” might be applied to any small vehicle. It also denotes a type of crustacean, and it can refer to a small, jet-propelled, winged missile that carries explosives. When Germany assaulted London during World War II, doodlebugs were one of the weapons most dreaded by the city’s residents. Germany’s V1 was a pilotless plane that carried a cargo of bombs. Flying until its engine ran out of fuel, the vehicle then crashed to earth, demolishing all that lay below. The V1 emitted a loud, rasping noise, so fearful Londoners knew that the plane was coming down when they heard the sound cut off. They called the planes “buzz bombs” or “doodlebugs.” There seems to be some disagreement why the second term was used: Did it come from a New Zealand insect? An English dragonfly? A London striptease act? Or perhaps some other source?
~written by Glenn Emery