Regionals, Class II Railroads

According to the Surface Transportation Board (STB) and American Short Line & Regional Railroad Association (ASLRRA) the latest, 2016 definition of a Class II, "regional" railroad, is any with annual operating revenues greater than $36.633 million but less than $457.913 million.  The Association of American Railroads (AAR) also defines them as "line haul" carriers maintaining at least 350 route miles.  As with Class I's, a Class II's classification is updated annually to meet inflation and other market factors (using the base year of 1991 according to the ASLRRA). At the current time there are sixteen Class II's in service; some are independently owned (like the Iowa Interstate) while others are part of large corporations/state agencies (such as Watco's Wisconsin & Southern, Genesee & Wyoming's Buffalo & Pittsburgh, and the state of Alaska's Alaska Railroad). Interestingly, the regionals of today are far different from those years ago.  Because of their well-maintained rights-of-way (welded rail and pristine ballast) and new locomotives these railroads are sometimes confused as Class I's.

If you enjoying watching and/or photographing trains, Class II's (and especially short lines) have traditionally provided a different perspective as they utilize an eclectic fleet of motive power and operate within a specific region.  Today, some railfans, particularly those from the older generations, have lost interest in the hobby since Class I's operate predominantly unit consists (coal, intermodal, grain, etc.) and utilize motive power which, largely, all looks the same.  As time passes, regionals have increasingly mirrored their larger counterparts with roads like the Montana Rail Link, Iowa Interstate, and Florida East Coast now boasting new locomotives of their own.  In addition, several others have traded their independent liveries for the orange and black of short-line/regional conglomerate Genesee & Wyoming.  The Federal Railroad Administration's (FRA) October, 2014 report entitled, "Summary Of Class II and Class III Railroad Capital Needs And Funding Sources," states that regionals currently operate 10,335 route miles, carry a workforce of 5,507 employees, and boast total annual revenues of $1.4 billion.

Alaska Railroad, Serving Its Home State Since The Early 1900s 

Buffalo & Pittsburgh, The Historic BR&P 

Central Oregon & Pacific, Utilizing The Former Southern Pacific 

Florida East Coast, "Speedway To Sunshine" 

Indiana Rail Road, Running Former Illinois Central Gulf Lines 

Iowa Interstate, Keeping Alive The Old Rock Island 

Montana Rail Link, Running The Old Northern Pacific 

New York, Susquehanna & Western, In Service Since The 1880s 

Paducah & Louisville, Running More Of The Ex-Illinois Central Gulf 

Pan Am Railways, Remnants Of The Maine Central And Boston & Maine

Providence & Worcester, With Roots Tracing To 1844 

Reading & Northern, In Anthracite Country 

Wheeling & Lake Erie, Since The 19th Century 

Wisconsin & Southern, Preserving Former Milwaukee Road And C&NW Lines 

Canadian Lines

Ontario Northland Railway 

Defunct Roads

Indiana Hi-Rail Corporation 

Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway 

Some of the most notable include the previously-mentioned FEC, a company which has been in continuous operation since 1895, and New York, Susquehanna & Western (NYS&W or the "Susie-Q" for short), a carrier dating back to 1881. Many regionals sprang up after the Staggers Act of 1980; this federal legislation greatly deregulated the industry and allowed Class I's to more easily shed unwanted secondary trackage.  In some instances the lines sold were large enough to immediately form Class II systems such as the Paducah & Louisville (created in 1986, it acquired ex-Illinois Central lines in western Kentucky); the "new" Wheeling & Lake Erie (W&LE); Central Maine & Quebec (which took over the failed Montreal, Maine & Atlantic in 2014, a system that had purchased much of the historic but bankrupt Bangor & Aroostook in 2003); Montana Rail Link (utilizing ex-Northern Pacific trackage); Wisconsin & Southern (this railroad has a great success story of reviving old Milwaukee Road, Illinois Central, and Chicago & North Western branches); and the Reading & Northern (operating former Pennsylvania, Reading, Lehigh Valley, and Central Railroad of New Jersey secondary lines in eastern Pennsylvania). 

There have also been Class II "fallen flags," normally the result of Class I acquisition. Two notables were the Wisconsin Central and Gateway Western.  The WC's name dates back to the 19th century but was reborn in 1987 as a large, 2,300+ mile system utilizing former Milwaukee Road and Soo Line trackage in northern Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula (it later acquired the historic Green Bay & Western, Fox River Valley Railroad, and Ontario's venerable Algoma Central). The WC had blossomed into a lucrative venture by the 1990's, perhaps even threatening to earn Class I status if left unchecked.  This prompted the Canadian National Railway to purchase the road, completing the transaction in 2001.  Gateway Western (GWWR) was a 1990 creation using former Illinois Central Gulf lines that had once belonged to the Chicago & Alton.  The trackage linked Chicago, St. Louis, and Kansas City and had originally been known as the Chicago, Missouri & Western, formed in 1987.  This system quickly ran into financial troubles which led to GWWR's startup via a New York investment firm.

"Regional" And "Short Line" Railroad Statistics

220 Railroads (1980, Pre-Staggers Act): 470 Railroads (1990, Post-Staggers Act) 

More Than 560 Railroads (Current)

27 Holding Companies Control Nearly 270 Short Lines/Regionals

17,800 Employees (10% Of Industry Total)

43,260 MIles (31% Of Industry Total)

Current And Future Capital Infrastructure Needs: $6.9 Billion

Sources:, Federal Railroad Administration

The GWWR became successful in part due to the Santa Fe, which utilized trackage rights to send significant business into St. Louis.  This continued until the Burlington Northern Santa Fe merger of 1995 (Burlington Northern already operated two routes into St. Louis via predessors St. Louis-San Francisco Railway and the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy) and the property was ultimately acquired by Kansas City Southern in May of 1997, allowing it a greatly sought extension further into the Midwest (with trackage rights KCS now stretches from Chicago into southern Mexico).  The large Canadian lines have also picked up three notables in more recent years including the Elgin Joliet & Eastern; Dakota, Minnesota & Eastern;and Iowa, Chicago & Eastern.  The former was an important and historic Chicago belt line while the latter were sister roads formed in the 1980's that took over ex-Chicago & North Western agricultural lines.  Specifically, the DM&E and IC&E picked up the C&NW's famous "Alco Line" and supporting branches which included 826 miles from Winona, Minnesota to Rapid City, South Dakota.

As newer short lines and regionals have turned around once moribund trackage, analysts and industry experts have realized that shedding/abandoning so much infrastructure during the 1970s and 1980s was a severe overreach.  For instance, main lines like the Milwaukee Road's Pacific Coast Extension and Erie Lackawanna's double-tracked, Chicago main line would have provided ideal corridors for intermodal service today.  In addition, the government's Consolidate Rail Corporation (Conrail) of 1976 proved successful but left the Northeast with monopolistic rail service.  In his book, "Rock Island Requiem," author Gregory Schneider articulately points out how severe federal regulation, dating back to the early 20th century, largely caused the industry's many failures decades later.  In Conrail's case it abandoned thousands of miles of trackage deemed superfluous although not every line was actually unprofitable.  

There were three notable losses under Conrail's watch; the previously mentioned EL main line, PRR's high-speed, doubled-tracked "Panhandle Route" main line to St. Louis, and New York Central subsidiary Canadian Southern Railway "CASO" between Buffalo and Detroit (via southern Ontario).  According to Freight Rail Works, an AAR-funded statistical website covering the industry, short lines and regionals account for, "...31% of U.S. freight rail mileage and 10% of employees."  Today, there are more than 550 systems in service across the country, serving every state but Hawaii.  Featured above are many of the well-known Class II's, including defunct operations such as the fabled Indiana Hi-Rail system (a famous user of Alco locomotives).  Visiting a railroad museum is always a thrilling experience. However, nothing really compares to witnessing railroading in its truest form; a long freight at-speed or a yard switcher keeping order in what appears a chaotic mess. To learn more about Class II railroads please click here to visit the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association (ASLRRA)

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