Back on track: Resurgence of railroads across America creates new jobs

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Across America, railroad tracks that once rattled with loads of goods have been dormant and overgrown. But that is changing. With gas and oil prices rising, rail shipping is seeing a resurgence, and the small town of North Creek, N.Y., is seeing the reopening of tracks that were shut down more than two decades ago.

"Trains use only about a fourth of the fuel that trucks use, and they emit only one-fourth of the pollutants -- so it's a much more environmentally friendly way to move anything," said Ed Ellis, president of Iowa Pacific Holdings, the rail company that's working to clear 30 miles of track between North Creek and Tahawus, where an old mine will provide long-leftover rock for new projects. Ellis says the railway may one day be used for other products like lumber or minerals. "We're excited about the idea that we're bringing rail freight back to the North Country after a lapse of over 20 years."

Ellis says many new jobs will be created, and he envisions success that may one day provide for more than 100 workers.

"There will be a number of new jobs created. We have people out working on the track. We've created train service jobs, the people who actually run the trains and work the trains but, in addition to that, there will be jobs crushing the rock, loading cars," said Ellis.

George Canon, the town supervisor of nearby Newcomb, says the work will be  welcome.

"In this particular town of 480 people, a job with 10 people or 20 people is huge," said Canon, who once worked at Tahawus Mine, where the railway will soon lead, as soon as next summer. He hopes to see big machinery back in action at the mine and fresh paychecks in the pockets of workers. "If they started a big crushing operation here, it could be 10 or could be 100."

Short line railways across the nation have been gaining steam. With an annual operating revenue of nearly $32 million, these smaller regional lines operate in 49 states, employing roughly 18,000 people. According to the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association, the industry started to surge again in the 1980s when the Staggers Act was enacted, softening regulations.

In 2006, short line freight traffic reached its height. It spiked again in 2011, up in almost every major commodity over 2010. Traffic in steel, metals, minerals and ores increased by 7 percent. Transfers of lumber and chemicals increased by more than 10 percent, and the movement of automobiles and parts increased by 25 percent.

Not everyone wants to see the trains back on track. As the clearing of tracks gets under way in the miles surrounding North Creek, environmental organizations are expressing concerns about the Forest Preserve where the tracks are routed. Local environmentalist and activist Charles Morrison says the government never should have used eminent domain to lay the rails through the area in the 1940s.

"The solution is to have the land that was taken by the federal government returned to the people of New York State. That can only be done by removing the rails and going to court," said Morrison, though it's unclear if efforts to appeal the approval process will be able to stall development.

Thus fa, the project has yet to be derailed by lawsuits, and Ellis projects a bright future for short line business across the nation.

"There are dormant tracks and there are now 600 short line railroads across the country that have preserved or reopened essential lines for freight and passenger service and there are new lines that can be opened so, yes, this is something that's just going to continue to grow over the next decade," said Ellis.