The History Of The Shortline Railroad

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On June 21, 1970, the Penn Central entered bankruptcy and completely changed railroading in America forever. It became the catalyst for the formation of the Consolidated Railroad Corporation (Conrail) in 1976 from itself and several other bankrupt eastern railroads.

That same decade two large Midwestern railroads declared bankruptcy…. The Rock Island and the Milwaukee Road…. The Rock Island eventually shut down completely on March 31, 1980 and the Milwaukee Road abandoned everything west of Miles City, Montana in 1980 and everything west of Ortonville, Minnesota in 1982 in addition to abandoning a lot more of its system.

At its startup, Conrail’s predecessors totaled approximately 35,000 route miles and by the time it was split up in 1999 it only operated about half of that mileage. In addition, the Milwaukee Road had cast off about 7,000 route miles and the Rock Island had ditched about the same. In all, there was nearly 30,000 route miles of railroad cast off….


Where did it all go?

Sadly, much of it was returned to nature but fortunately the lion’s share became hundreds of short lines….

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The PC bankruptcy and later Conrail opened the door to the Stagger’s Act of 1980. In turn, the Stagger’s Act opened the door to the simplified, wholesale abandonment of redundant and/or non-profitable branches, sidings and secondary lines.

Conrail in the beginning was an amalgamation and admittedly needed to streamline its operations…. Fast! It had inherited no less than 10 ailing roads from the start and with them came a myriad of duplicate lines and light-density branches that often couldn’t generate enough revenue to justify the cost of operating them.

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In part, because of the dinosaurian slowness of the government (and more specific the ICC (Interstate Commerce Commission)), Conrail’s predecessors had been slow to abandon these lines.

And while some of the lines that Conrail didn’t want were necessary to keep local industries going. The problem was that such lines were of much greater economic value to their communities than they were to Conrail so often times, public money was used to lease or buy the lines that Conrail didn’t want.

Naturally, these newly independent lines needed operators to serve them, and because of its sheer size, Conrail had a lot of red tape and legal and corporate tangle such as unions, standard wages and restrictive work rules and therefore didn’t have the flexibility to serve such lines. In simple terms, Conrail was a high-cost operator.

Short line railroads with their responsive local managements were a way to provide rail service to cities and towns that didn’t fit in with Conrail’s restructuring plans. And that trend, which started with Big Blue soon spread to the Midwest and later the West and Short line railroads sprouted up like poppies all across America.

The History Of The Shortline Railroad