A network of small railroads throughout New Jersey have taken Conrail's excess spur tracks and turned them into profit-making ventures.
A few years ago, Conrail was ready to unload unprofitable railroad spurs that had fallen into disrepair and were on the verge of being abandoned.That affected 18 miles of track in Salem County, another 47 miles in Cumberland County, about 90 miles throughout northern New Jersey and more.
In the vast national freight network, letting a few tracks fall into disrepair may have been insignificant to Conrail officials.
But the issue was not trivial to the industries lining those tracks. They needed a way to tie into the national rail network.
We serve a food processing plant, a frozen meat distribution center, a fertilizer distributor, a major glass company, a company that receives chemicals - and those are just a few, said Tony Macrie, operations manager for the West Jersey Short Line in Salem County.
To help those industries, Salem County purchased the 18-mile line in the county in 1985 and contracted its operation to the small 10-employee company.
We have fewer personnel doing more jobs, Mr. Macrie said of the company. I'm operations manager, but I'm also an engine man, a train dispatcher and a freight agent. It keeps your job more interesting.
In Cumberland County, the Winchester & Western Railroad employs about 50 people. The vice president of the company, Porter Collins, boasts that the county roads are spared of 75,000 tractor-trailer trips each year because of the small rail line.
This was a line that was about to be abandoned, but we made it work
because our cost structure is not as high as Conrail, Mr. Collins said. We can afford to use 20- and 30-year-old locomotives. If they break down someplace, we have the capability to fix them. We don't need highly reliable, expensive locomotives that cost a million dollars.
New Jersey, bless their hearts, has a program of helping small railroads repair their tracks. The highways in the state are reaching capacity, and they know that to close extra tracks would place more of a burden on the roads, he said.
And we also have greater labor flexibility, Mr. Collins said, because the company is not bound to follow labor union rules.
The New York Susquehanna and Western Railway in the heavily industrial counties of northern New Jersey was saved from extinction in 1980 when local elected officials heard the cries of frantic companies that rely on bulk boxcars to transport goods across the country.
The current vice president of the railway, Robert Kurdock, was one of those associated with the previous railroad's management. He admits that he actually recommended closing the bankrupt railroad because of declining business.
Today, he proudly points to the revitalized line. The turnabout came in part with a new union contract that placed fewer work restrictions on the company.
Today, business is exceptionally healthy, Mr. Kurdock said. We were fortunate to have shippers who were very supportive in the lean years and gave us a lot of freight.
New Jersey has eight short-line railroads - five formed within the past five years, Mr. Collins said.
The growth of the short lines may have been helped by the more personalized service. Mr. Macrie said the West Jersey Short Line operation is run family-style.
Most of our people are local people, he said. They can go home every night.
And the local industries benefit from the small-town hospitality: We can have a locomotive at their doorstep within an hour's notice, Mr. Macrie said. Conrail couldn't do that.
Something apparently is attracting local industry to the tiny railroad,
because when Conrail ran the Salem spur, it averaged about 20 carloads a month. In less than three years, the West Jersey Short Line averages 80 carloads a month and is still growing, Mr. Macrie said.
In the United States, short-line railroads are a turnaround industry, said Thomas C. Dorsey, a spokesman for the American Short Line Railroad Association in Washington.
We're a very old part of the railroading industry, but since 1980, we've undergone a considerable resurgence, he said.
It started with the realization that major railroads throughout the country have very high costs and branch lines are not only expensive to operate, but they don't produce much in terms of revenue, Mr. Dorsey said.
One of the highest costs is labor, he said. Major carriers operate under expensive union contracts. If someone comes in and is not bound by those costs, they have a much better chance of operating the line.
Railroad unions have understandably been somewhat dissatisfied, Mr. Dorsey said, acknowledging that there have been attempts in statehouses and courts to stifle the concept of short lines.
That bothers railroad men such as Mr. Collins, who saw railroad employees lose jobs in the wake of cutbacks by larger companies.