Little Engines That Still Can!

Across America, short-line freight trains are pulling their weight

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."

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