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VOL. 37 | NO. 3 | Friday, January 18, 2013

Rural businesses may be key to short line survival

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NASHVILLE (AP) - The survival of short line railroads in the state may depend on small manufacturers and Tennessee farmers, who still use the older tracks and trains to move products in and out of rural areas.

WPLN-FM reports (http://bit.ly/U6O3Xi) state officials are encouraging Tennessee farmers and manufacturers to reconsider the short line for transportation with the bottom line being that if they don't use it, Tennessee could lose them.

Often less than a hundred miles, short line railroads are typically locally owned and operated and trains are smaller and move slower than on larger railroads. As an example, on an average day two dozen cars will pass along a short line railroad going about 20 miles an hour on its way to the Tennessee River. But on large railroads, a single CSX train for example might be 100 cars long traveling at 60 mph.

"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.

Ed Harlan of the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, the short lines are an underappreciated connection to commerce that is worth keeping in business, especially in rural areas.

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.

He's been traveling in Tennessee to encourage farmers to use the short lines. "The efforts to keep the short line rail are not nostalgic efforts," he says. "They are based on solid business and transportation issues."

The Calcium Silicate Corp. employs a dozen workers in Maury County, where jobs are hard to come by. The company uses the short line to move calcium silicate, a powdery by-product from an old phosphate plant, in hopper cars.

Betty Runion, an employee, said the calcium silicate is used as fertilizer for sugar cane.

"We'll ship it down to Florida, the big stuff right yonder," she said, pointing to giant mounds of crushed material.

She said the short line is important 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."

Most short lines were sold off by larger railroad companies in the 1980s because they were no longer profitable. In Tennessee, they've stayed in business with assistance from a fuel tax paid for by all trains. The tax raises $15 million, but that just goes toward keep up maintenance on the tracks.

In other areas of the country, like Texas, Pennsylvania and New York, companies are using short line to haul pipes and chemicals used for natural gas drilling.

"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," said Rich Simmons, president of the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association.

But in Tennessee, most companies are still trying to get back business lost in the recession.

It's definitely been a struggle," says Matt Prince, manager of Tennessee Southern Railroad, which runs through Pulaski, Columbia and North Alabama.

Prince argues the short line costs less and is more fuel efficient compared to trucks, but he said farmers like the convenience of trucks that can come right to their farms 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."

When short lines close, companies sell the iron rails as scrap metal, which ensuring that the lines aren't likely to return.

"There are lines being abandoned more times than we care to say," Prince says.