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Regionals and short lines originate or terminate one out of every four carloads moved via rail in the United States, according to the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association. There are more than 500 of them scattered throughout the nation, serving small towns and businesses that wouldn’t have rail access if not for a regional or short line providing a connection to the U.S. Class I network.
Each small railroad has a story to share about their location, customers and challenges. Currently, the toughest challenge is a common one: business conditions. Regionals and short lines reported fewer carloads last year — traffic was down 4.4 percent vs. 2006 to 6.2 million carloads, according to RMI data derived from 310 small railroads — due to the weak economy.
Traffic and revenue generation will continue to press regionals’ and short lines’ resolve this year because of the economy, expiration of federal tax-credit legislation, rate changes, environmental pressures and other factors.
But some small railroads aren’t penning a sad tale for 2008. They expect to boost carloads and increase revenue after taking extra — and, in some cases, extraordinary — measures to attract more customers.
For example, Finger Lakes Railway won steel business after helping to develop a special rail-car cover to protect the freight’s condition en route — something the central New York railroad did behind the scenes to meet the shipper’s needs.
“This is one of those things you do quietly, but it’s a good example of what the short-line industry can do,” says Finger Lakes President Mike Smith.
As are the Brownsville & Rio Grande International Railroad’s build-up of North American Free Trade Agreement-related carloads, Carolina Coastal Railway’s marketing success after assuming operation of a Norfolk Southern Railway Line, Pacific Harbor Line’s attempts to offer Los Angeles-area port users the greenest of green power, Sierra Northern Railway’s efforts to win back inbound liquid petroleum gas business, and Tacoma Rail’s transit time and revenue gains associated with servicing Union Pacific Railroad’s locomotives.
The following six “Short Line Stories” describe how Brownsville & Rio Grande, et. al (arranged in alphabetical order) are wringing top-line benefits by going above and beyond personalized, reliable service. They’re going the extra mile, sometimes literally, to convince shippers that short lines are capable of meeting every transportation need and being a good business partner.
“We’ve done favors for some customers,” says Carolina Coastal President Doug Golden. “We didn’t get paid for some things we could have charged for, but we did it as a favor to get them to think about rail.”
— Jeff Stagl
Brownsville & Rio Grande
Carolina Coastal Railway
Finger Lakes Railway
Pacific Harbor Line
Sierra Northern Railway