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Shortline Railroads

Depression-era road development pushed all-weather highways into formerly inaccessible territories. This allowed mail delivery to be shifted to trucks, condemning parallel railroads to abandonment. At the same time, the value of scrap iron was increasing, buoyed by purchases from Japan and a rearming United States.

Unable to compete with trucks, and with their passenger business lost to automobiles and buses, some shortline railroads found themselves worth more as scrap than as operating railroad companies. It was an ironic paradox: Railroads that had survived the Depression were killed off in the recovery.

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Dozens of shortlines were abandoned and torn up for salvage during the Depression. In Nevada alone, the Randsburg Railway was abandoned in 1933, parts of the Nevada Copper Belt lost service in 1933 and 1935, the Nevada Central Railway was abandoned in early 1938, as was part of the Nevada & California Railway, followed by the Eureka & Palisade Railroad a few months later.

Service on the Virginia City line of the fabled Virginia & Truckee Railroad was discontinued in 1939, and the Tonopah & Tidewater stopped operating in mid-1940. The rails that weren't torn up immediately disappeared during wartime scrap drives.

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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.

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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.

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