State officials have started encouraging Tennessee farmers and manufacturers to reconsider short line railroad to ship their products. The bottom line of the pitch is this: if you don’t use it, we could lose it.
Often a hundred miles or less, short lines could be considered the on and off ramps to the railroad network, typically run by mom and pop operators off the beaten path.
“Being in Amish country, we have to be a little wary of horse and buggies,” says engineer Craig Risner as he pulls through an intersection near Ethridge, Tenn.
On an average weekday, a scant two-dozen cars ride this line at all of 20 miles an hour en route to the Tennessee River. A single CSX train, for instance, might be 100 cars long, cruising at 60 miles an hour. But the short lines are built for service, not speed. This train stopped to add a few cars in Maury County.
A giant Volvo front-loader emerges from a gray cloud after dumping calcium silicate in a hopper car. The powdery bi-product is left over from an old phosphate plant. Betty Runion says it’s used as fertilizer for sugar cane.
“We’ll ship it down to Florida, the big stuff right yonder,” she says, pointing to giant mounds of crushed material.
The Calcium Silicate Corp. employs a dozen workers in part of the county where jobs are in short supply. Employees have included several members of the Runion family, including – now – Betty Runion’s grandson. She says the short line is key to their business.
“Without it, I don’t think we could do what we do here,” she says. “It really is our lifeline down here.”
Particularly in rural areas, where employment options are limited, the short lines are an underappreciated connection to commerce worth keeping around, says Ed Harlan of the Tennessee Department of Agriculture.
“To people in smaller rural counties that have been able to keep a job or a family member to keep a job, it’s pretty darn important,” he says.
Harlan has been out meeting with farmers, trying to drum up new short line customers.
“The efforts to keep the short line rail are not nostalgic efforts,” he says. “They are based on solid business and transportation issues.”
Most short lines were sold off by the big rail companies in the 1980s because they were no longer profitable. In Tennessee they’ve stayed alive with help from a fuel tax paid by all trains. The money – $15 million this year – goes toward keeping up the tracks, but otherwise the short lines are on their own.
Across the nation, the outlook is all over the map.
“It all depends on the commodity and where you’re operating,” says Rich Simmons, president of the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association.
Companies in Texas, Pennsylvania and New York are doing quite well hauling pipes and chemicals used for natural gas drilling. Some idled tracks are even being revived.
“If you happen to be a short line that’s in and around and operating near one of these shale [gas] formations, the money that you are making is unprecedented,” Simmons says.
But in Tennessee, most companies are just trying to piecemeal enough work to keep moving down the tracks.
“It’s definitely been a struggle,” says Matt Prince, manager of Tennessee Southern Railroad, which runs through Pulaski, Columbia and North Alabama.
Prince makes a case about the lower cost and fuel efficiency compared to trucks. But it’s a tough sell.
Farmers like the convenience of an 18-wheeler backing right into the field. Manufacturers now use parts as soon as they arrive, and Prince can only guarantee a delivery window of several days.
“It’s hard for us to compete with just-in-time,” he says. “But we try our best to.”
The best year for short lines was in 2006. The recession hit hard and a few may not get back up.
At times, tracks have been worth more dead than alive when companies can sell the iron rails as scrap metal. And once the tracks are gone, they’re probably gone for good.
“There are lines being abandoned more times than we care to say,” Prince says.