The short lines are able to operate profitably where major railroads cannot, mostly due to cheaper labor.
There has been a huge increase in recent years in the number of short-line railroad operations in Kansas.
"In 1984, we had about 30 miles of short-line railroad in the state," said John Rosacker of Kansas Department of Transportation. "Now we have about 2,700 miles operated by short lines."
Overall track miles in Kansas have dropped significantly the last two decades, but had short-line operators not stepped in to replace major railroads, the drop would have been far more dramatic. Most of the short-line growth has been since 1990. Kansas now has 19 short-line railroads, versus only two major ones. The largest of the short lines is the Central Kansas, with 671 miles of branch line track. The smallest is the Wichita Union Terminal railroad, which has two miles of track.
"Most people think of them as mom-and-pop operations," Rosacker said. "That's not the case. In many cases, they are multinational with operations in Canada and South America. Most of our short lines are doing OK. The Kyle has been very successful."
Rosacker said the short lines are able to operate profitably where major railroads cannot, mostly due to cheaper labor.
"All the (major) railroads are union labor, so their cost of labor is higher," he said. "It takes a (major) railroad almost as much money to pick up a handful of cars in the country as it does to operate a 100-car train from Kansas City to the Gulf or the coast. In the last 20 years, they've been selling off less-profitable branch lines to the short-line operators."
"Rather than abandon a line we would rather sell it to a short line," said Union Pacific spokesman Mark Davis. "Short-line railroads in the last 10 years have taken off."
It works well for the majors, Davis said. The short lines service the less-profitable branch lines, moving cars short distances and then feeding them to the larger railroads for long hauls.
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