The Little Railroads That Could

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

Also, some of Arkansas’ short lines have diversified from just freight. Midland, for example, operates two Railroad Distribution Services locations for loading and unloading rail cars. The Arkansas & Missouri Railroad in northwest Arkansas operates a passenger excursion line between Fort Smith and Winslow (Washington County) using antique Pullman cars. 

Ups and Downs

Just like the larger railroads, short lines have had ups and downs during the past 100 years. 

“Some have gone by the wayside,” Christiansen said. “That may not necessarily be their fault more than just the economical business climate being what it is.”

But in recent history, the amount of track operated by short lines has increased as class 1 lines have decreased.

“It’s an ebb and flow, like breathing in and out,” Christiansen said. 

The Association of American Railroads showed in 2010 that class 1 carriers have decreased their countrywide track mileage by about 50 percent since 1967 — from 200,000 to about 100,000. Short lines have increased from nearly nothing to about 50,000 miles. 

Laggan said one of the big reasons was the Staggers Rail Act of 1980 that partially deregulated railroads.

“It gave us pricing freedoms that we didn’t have prior to 1980,” he said. “It let us price to the market. It’s been a blessing to the industry as well as railroads over time.”

Laggan said a good customer-railroad relationship is common among Arkansas short lines and this also accounts for the industry’s current health in the state. Laggan worked with a class 1 carrier for the first 20 years of his career and said customer service is on a different planet in the short line universe. 

“Generally, the short line is a lot closer to the customer,” Laggan said. “If we have an issue with the customer, we can hop in a car, go see them and talk about the problem.”

“I’m not saying the big railroads are at fault,” Christiansen said, “but a little railroad speaks one-to-one like you and I would, rather than making you go to an 800 number.”



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