Writer Kevin Krajick travels off the beaten path and into rural America in search of a hearty breed of entrepreneurs. In recent years, hundreds of buyers have acquired a kind of property most people never dream of: their own railroad. Not a quaint steam operation for summer tourists, but a real freight line.
These dinky, declining old feeders, or short lines, have been purchased mainly from big railroads ready to abandon them and the rural economies they serve as money losers. And people like Robert and Annie Bryant of Buckingham County, Virginia, are managing to turn these lines into modestly profitable even lucrative ventures.
The Bryants' Buckingham Branch line carries a variety of backwoods commodities kyanite from a local mine, cinders, crushed slate and fresh-cut railroad ties for shipping on to big customers.
The short-line survival formula, as practiced by the Bryants and other similar owners, is simple: lower wages, used equipment and nonunion employees who do a bit of everything. As one freight car repairman working a western Pennsylvania line reported, "We're not getting rich. But we're moving products, and people have jobs."