Even as super-railroads began to dominate the industry and become even larger in the 1990s, smaller railroads were beginning to proliferate.
From 484 shortlines in 1987 to 519 in 1994, America's short-line railroad industry was growing. By 1995, shortlines represented about 25 percent of the nation's rail system, according to the American Association of Railroads.
As trunk railroads became larger, they began to focus on heavily used corridors and quantity shippers of intermodal, containerized, and bulk freight moving en masse. On many occasions, they sold or leased secondary mainlines or branch lines to independent operators with lower overhead costs. The Santa Fe even sold the branch line to its namesake city in New Mexico.
Most shortlines were built on hustle. For example, the manager of one such rail line might have the office and telephone for his business in his house. When a shipper needs a freight car moved at 4 A.M., he can call and arrange a special move. No problem.
The mergers of the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe, as well as the proposed merger of Southern Pacific and Union Pacific, have presented new opportunities for short-lines. For now, at least, their future appears secure.