Ask the Expert – What is a short line railroad? What are the benefits of the freight rail network in North America?

Rail Safety DupontA short line railroad is an independently owned, financed, and operated rail company that operates over a relatively short distance, as compared to the large regional networks operated by the major railroads, known as Class 1 railroads.  The Surface Transportation Board governs the U.S. rail network and categorizes railroads by revenue, with most short line railroads categorized as Class II or III.  Short line railroads made up the original U.S. rail network; mergers between them created the Class 1 railroads.  Today it is extremely rare for a new stretch of mainline track to be built; however, new short lines are created when Class 1s sell off branch lines.  

While major regional railroads provide long-haul rail freight movement, short lines provide the ‘first and last mile service’, meaning that in addition to hauling freight, short lines provide the high touch customer service that major industries require of their partners in the supply chain to ensure a seamless flow of product.  To meet the needs of their customers, full service short line railroads, like Mississippi Export Railroad, lease fleets, maintain railcars, locomotives, and track both on and off site, perform all switching at the customer’s site, store cars, transload materials to and from rail to truck and ship, provide warehousing, coordinate billing, manage flow with Class 1s, and offer shovel ready industrial sites.  Given their attention to customer needs, broad service lines, and development of industrial sites, short line railroads play an important role in economic development; rather than calling a Class II or III railroad a short line, you could call it an extra-large industrial park.

What are the benefits of the freight rail network in North America?

America’s rail network moves 40% of U.S. freight by ton-mile, the weight of paid tonnage multiplied by total miles it is transported.  Railroads provide long haul, low cost transportation for a wide variety of commodities and consumer goods.  Everything from the energy products that light your home, the food you eat, the cars you drive, and the Amazon products you purchase all travel by rail.  Americans benefit from freight moving by rail with lower congestion on our roads (a typical mile-long freight train can replace more than 500 trucks), lower greenhouse gas emissions (moving freight by rail rather than truck reduces associated greenhouse gas emissions by 75%), lower fuel consumption (trains are four times more fuel efficient than trucks on average), and safer highways (semi-truck accidents accounted for 4,050 deaths in 2015 as opposed to rail’s 233).

In addition to the direct impact that low freight rail prices have on commodities and consumables, using rail also saves the taxpayer money.  Railroads are independently owned companies that are responsible for maintaining its own infrastructure, whereas trucks operate on public roads that are maintained by government bodies and are paid for by the taxpayer.  Trucks do play a vital role in partnering with railroads for short haul movement of products to and from non-rail served locations; however, long haul truck shipment should be the exception and not the rule.  If just 10% of American freight moved by the heaviest trucks on the road was transported by rail instead, 1.5 billion gallons of fuel would be saved per year and greenhouse gas emissions would fall by roughly 17 million tons, which would be equivalent to taking 3.2 million cars off the highway for a year or planting 400 million trees.

To read about the history of this interesting company, click here.

Contributed by Kate C. Luce
President and CEO
Mississippi Export Railroad
4519 McInnis Avenue
Moss Point, Mississippi 39563


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