The Little Railroads That Could

by Luke Jones  on Monday, Apr. 1, 2013 12:00 am  

Short line railroads account for only about 3 percent of the country’s total railroad-generated revenue. But compared with other states, where governments have had to buy up miles and miles of unused track to keep them operational, Arkansas’ network of short lines has stepped up to help keep the industry stable. 

A little more than 1,000 miles of railroad in Arkansas are locally owned and operated. 

“I think Arkansas is really very blessed with the short line industry that is here as I compare that to some states in the country,” said Charles Laggan, president of Local Railroads of Arkansas Inc. and the Arkansas Midland Railroad. 

Michigan’s government, for example, operates 15.5 percent of its rails; Wisconsin operates 24 percent.

Arkansas is among the states with the lowest percentage of state-owned rail track, with less than 1 percent owned by the government. 

“Those are mostly things like, for instance, the trackage at the Port of Little Rock,” Laggan said. “It’s owned by the city of Little Rock by design. They didn’t have to acquire it because it was abandoned by one of the larger railroads.”

Short lines, Laggan said, are helping rescue unused track from abandonment. Rights of way operated by short lines are usually spun off by larger carriers. For instance, the Missouri & Northern Arkansas that runs from Diaz in Jackson County to Cotter in Baxter County runs on former Union Pacific rails. The Little Rock & Western Railway uses east-west rails between Danville (Yell County) and Little Rock that became available when the Rock Island Railroad went bankrupt in 1980. 

“These are lines that, for the most part, the large carriers didn’t have interest in operating anymore,” Laggan said. 

Laggan’s company, the Arkansas Midland Railroad, is another example of this. When it started in Malvern in 1992, it comprised four former Union Pacific lines, three of which were candidates for abandonment if they had stayed with UP. 

Now, Midland owns nine lines comprising 150 miles of track across several regions of the state. 

In the state there are 22 class 2 and class 3 — usually called short line — railroads.

By comparison, the three class 1 railroads in the state — BNSF, Kansas City Southern and Union Pacific — have about 2,500 track miles.



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