The Little Railroads That Could

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

The three classes are divided by gross revenue and track mileage: Class 1 railroads exceed $359.6 million per year; class 2 railroads are between $40 million and $359.6 million and operating more than 350 miles of track; and class 3 railroads are under $40 million. 

Forty-two of the state’s 75 counties are served by short lines. Some of the lines are held by larger railroads like Genesee & Wyoming Inc. of Greenwich, Conn., but many are headquartered in Arkansas and all of them at least have a local office.

Personalized Service

Typically, short lines exist in a symbiotic relationship with larger railroads and other modes of transportation. 

“They have a tendency to reach for business that’s been lost where the main line carrier is running at capacity in some areas,” said Craig Christiansen, a rail historian who runs a train museum in Bald Knob (White County). “When it comes to short lines, they can do personalized service that a lot of people can’t.”

Laggan, for instance, said about 95 percent of his railroad’s cargo starts or ends on another railroad. 

“We call that an ‘interchange’ when we hand a car off to Union Pacific,” he said. “We have seven different interchanges with Union Pacific in Arkansas. We actually feed them traffic.”

The first-mile and last-mile parts of the trip tend to be the most labor-intensive, Laggan said. In other words, they’re expensive and time-consuming for a huge company like UP, so those are the parts of the trip that Midland handles. 

Midland transports lumber, stone for road construction, drilling pads, cotton seed, aluminum and cement. Some of its major clients are local facilities of large companies like Clearwater Paper, Potlatch, Georgia-Pacific and Firestone Building Products Co.

Not every short line is as diverse as Midland: The Little Rock & Western spends most of its 79 miles of track on one client: Green Bay Packaging in Morrilton. Operations Manager Steve Marsh said LR&W also handles some Deltic Timber Corp. products, but otherwise focuses on Green Bay products from Morrilton to class 1 interchanges in Little Rock.

“Paper has always been its major client,” Marsh said. “We’ve always had a good business here. We’ve always been a profitable railway.”

Some other clients served by short lines in Arkansas include Albemarle Corp., Entergy Arkansas Inc., ConAgra Foods and Tyson Foods Inc. 



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