That’s shortline, not shoreline. It’s a term used to describe very small railroads.
I first became aware of shortlines a couple of years ago when we took a brief trip to Vermont during early Autumn. One of our activities included an excursion along the western bank of the Connecticut River on the White River Flyer, a vintage train belonging to the Green Mountain Railroad.
My Brief Green Mountain Railroad Video
I didn’t discover that the railroad was an independent entity with only about 50 miles of track (all within Vermont) until I began writing an article on my travel site. My second encounter occurred as I researched a 12MC article on Railroad Ferries. I learned about the Bay Coast Railroad with 96 miles of track on the Delmarva Peninsula, running from Pocomoke City, Maryland to the southern tip of Virginia Eastern Shore and then via ferry to Norfolk.
Until then I’d though that maybe there were only a handful of railroads and that they were all large. That misconception couldn’t have been more completely wrong. American-Rails.com explained that shortlines "by far make up the bulk of railroads in the country today, totaling some 500."
The U.S. Government tags shortlines with a more bureaucratic name — Class III railroads. Those are defined as "Carriers having annual carrier operating revenues of $20 million or less after applying the railroad revenue deflator formula" and feel free to examine the deflator formula on your own if that thought excites you. Thus, in the eyes of the government, shortlines aren’t measured by miles of track but by piles of money. The Class III category contains an array of railroad types. The longer ones might serve to connect a few towns to the larger railroad network, like the Green Mountain Railroad excursion I experienced. Others are more specialized terminal or switching railroads, connecting rail to other modes of transportation or moving cars within the confines of a rail yard.
I wondered what might be the shortest existing railroad and quickly concluded that it’s difficult to say. Trainweb provided a great list of very short railroads, with each line ten miles or shorter. I got lost on that page for awhile, amazed at the vast array of micro-railroads catalogued there. The following instances were amongst the shortest mentioned.
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The Kendallville Terminal Railway Co operates 1.1 miles of track, transporting sugar and other cooking materials for the Kraft Foods marshmallow and caramel manufacturing plant. Sweet! The Kendallville railway also connects to the much larger Norfolk Southern Railroad, and offers facilities for railcar storage.
Google’s satellite view shows a few of those railcars in storage.
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Michigan is home to the Lapeer Industrial Railroad. It owns about 1.3 miles of track although it leases an additional 0.9 miles-or-so from the Grand Trunk / Canadian National railway, which also offers it an interchange to the rest of the railroad world. Clients include a local grain elevator which provides seasonal business and a furniture factory that receives bulk plastic pellets year-round.
The tracks crossing the road in this Street View image belong to the Lapeer Industrial Railroad. Notice the railcar in the distance and the warehouse on the right.
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I found a nice article about the Effingham Railroad on the Trains website. It mentioned that "Effingham is ideally suited as a regional distribution hub, being intersected by north-south and east-west Interstate highways and railroads, the railroads being heavy-duty mainlines of Canadian National (ex-Illinois Central) and CSX (ex-Conrail)."
The Effingham Railroad has an owner, two employees and a single locomotive delivering railcars to the Hodgson Mill (a manufacturer of flour, bread and breakfast cereal), and a couple of warehouses. Effingham Railroad started with 400 feet of track and has since expanded to a much larger 2 miles. Their sole locomotive can be observed in the Google Satellite image next to a loading dock at Hodgson Mill. Flickr also has a nice image although it didn’t have a Creative Commons license so you’ll need to see it on your own.
The 500+ Class III railroads fill a vital need. They provide an economic lifeline to small towns and rural manufacturers. Larger railroads wouldn’t be able to operate in many of those locations profitably or their rates would be exorbitant, which is why they’ve abandoned a lot of track now used by Class III providers. The shortlines prove that it doesn’t take an extensive network or lots of equipment to provide a vital service at a reasonable rate, and still make a living.