WAYCROSS, Ga. - Train cars rumble over the tracks 24/7. Crossing arms raise and lower as if in silent salute. The fading wail of a passing locomotive's air horn seems as natural as birds singing in trees.
Trains set the rhythm of daily life here. Waycross is a railroad town. Sonia Meadows of Millwood doesn't work for the railroad, but much of her life revolves around it.
"In the mornings, I leave at least 15 minutes earlier so I won't be late for work," said Ms. Meadows, a legal secretary in Waycross. "If I have to go to the grocery then I just take Corridor Z and go around all of the tracks."
Despite such precautions, train-related delays are unavoidable.
"You don't complain about it. You just adjust to it," she said. "It's part of life if you live or work in Waycross."
The south Georgia town is a hub for CSX Transportation, which employs about 1,200 workers in the city. The operation is among the top three employers in Ware County, officials say.
"Just about everyone's got a friend, neighbor or relative who works there. Waycross is pretty well known as a railroad town," said A.A. "Gus" Karle, retired CSX terminal superintendent at Rice Yard.
"The railroad built this community. And for many years, they've kept it going," said Mr. Karle, who is also the former executive director of the Waycross-Ware County Chamber of Commerce.
Rice Yard is the second-largest classification switching yard in the CSX system.
CSX Transportation, the third-largest railroad company in the nation, has about 3,280 Georgia employees and about 7,729 in Florida. It has 5,099 miles of track in both states.
The freight yard spans 850 acres in the southwest panhandle of Waycross. It is 4 1/2 miles long and a half-mile wide, with more than 100 tracks. Maps depict the yard with its 460 miles of feeder and switching tracks as something akin to a bowl of spaghetti.
The trains passing through Rice Yard shoulder automobiles, coal, appliances, grain, lumber, petrochemicals, televisions and other consumer goods to destinations throughout 23 eastern states, the District of Columbia and two Canadian provinces.
Railroads gave Waycross its start and its name. The city began as a rail junction. By 1881, the city received its name because that was where "ways cross," Mr. Karle said.
During its heyday in the 1920s, about 3,000 people from throughout South Georgia worked for the railroad in Waycross. At one point during the early 1990s, the yard dropped down to about 900 workers, he said.
Neighborhoods sprung up around the yard. Some, like "09" near Nicholls Street and Glenmore Avenue on the north side of the yard, took their names from rail lines. Other neighborhoods, such as those along Solomon Street on the south side of the yard were established long before the tracks were laid.
"I remember when it was all mud hole and water moccasins," said Mack Howard, who has lived less than a stone's throw from the freight yard for about 20 years.
Many days, the yard falls nearly silent by 10 p.m., he said.
"They more or less keep it quiet. About the only time you hear anything is when they start switching cars on the closest track here, then it gets a little noisy, but it's not that bad," Mr. Howard said.
Ware County Manager Joseph Pritchard said the railroad's impact can be heard, if not seen, every day. It is most visible downtown, where City Hall and both the county and federal courthouses are sandwiched between the tracks.
"The first day I was here, I was in a meeting when the train whistle blew and just about scared me out of my skin. I jumped. But the other people in the meeting didn't even flinch," he said.
Federal court judges occasionally allow longer lunch recesses than at other court venues because jurors, witnesses and attorneys can be delayed by the trains.
City officials built two satellite fire stations away from the downtown business district in the 1980s as a precaution to keep trucks and ambulances from running into traffic jams caused by passing trains.
Although CSX is no longer the county's largest employer, Mr. Pritchard said, it's still a major player and a vital asset to the region.
"The railroad's glory days might be over, but it's still a key component and selling point when we go out for economic development," Mr. Pritchard said.