Welcome to the unheralded but essential, reliable and profitable world of the Buffalo & Pittsburgh Railroad, a line you've probably never heard of that schedules train trips regularly to places you've probably never wanted to go.
An excellent example would be the morning train that departs six days each week at 4 a.m. from the B&P Tifft Yard in Lackawanna. By 8 a.m. it is already in Bradford, the first destination in Pennsylvania, after perhaps stopping in places like Machias, West Valley and East Salamanca.
The train is powered by two or more sleek diesel locomotives painted a stunning orange and black. It has a crew of just two, the conductor and the engineer, and it carries no passengers, just freight. The stops it makes are determined by the materials it carries that day.
In a typical winter, the B&P, interchanging with the Rochester & Southern Railroad, carries a huge amount of rock salt mined near Mount Morris for use on roads and highways. In 2011, the salt shipments totaled 1.7 million tons. With the mild winter of 2012, salt shipments were way down.
The train leaves Bradford and travels south through rural Pennsylvania with signs along the way announcing stations like Mt. Jewett, Johnsonburg, Ridgway, Brockway, Dellwood, Falls Creek and DuBois. It is scheduled to arrive in DuBois by 3 p.m. and then will head on to Punxsutawney, the supposed domain of the legendary groundhog and the best-known destination of the day.
Meanwhile, as that train has been heading south, a second B&P train, originating before sunrise in New Castle, Pa., is making its way north toward Buffalo. They meet and spend the night in Punxsutawney; crews rearrange the cars, and the trains continue toward their final destinations early the next day.
This process may not sound very exciting, but it renders an indispensable service, and short-line railroads like the Buffalo & Pittsburgh carry staggering loads using far less energy per ton and at rates far lower than the trucking industry. A loaded freight car weighs 250,000 pounds, and the trains usually consist of 50 to 100 cars. The railroads brag they can move a ton of freight 500 miles on a single gallon of diesel fuel, three times more efficiently than trucking.
The materials transported by the B&P include coal, steel, scrap metal, petroleum products, chemicals, plastics, lumber, paper, sand, gravel, animal feed, fertilizer and rock salt.
The B&P, with headquarters in Rochester, is just one of 65 railroads in 10 regions owned by its parent company, Genesee & Wyoming Inc., named after those counties of New York where it began. It now is an international firm that had its start in 1899 when Edward Fuller and some associates bought the bankrupt railroad that carried salt 14 miles from their mine in Retsof to Caledonia. His great-grandson, Mortimer Fuller III, the current chairman, occasionally enjoys reflecting on his purchase of the Genesee & Wyoming in 1977. When he bought it, the railroad still had only that same 14-mile route. Today it has nearly 8,000 miles of track in five countries.
That growth was stimulated by the Staggers Act of 1980, which allowed major railroads to dispose of their unprofitable routes. Short-line companies emerged from the shadows, grabbing those routes and watching as their operations expanded, evolving into successful businesses. They link with the big railroads like CSX, Canadian National and Canadian Pacific whenever necessary to carry freight to its destination.
In a report to stockholders, Fuller credited Warren Buffett's 2010 investment in Burlington Northern Santa Fe with stimulating interest in the advantages of rail shipping. The rail industry had touted its advantages for years, but businesspeople started paying attention only after the Buffett acquisition.
It's diverting to review the other railroads in the Genesee & Wyoming portfolio. They have names like the Chattooga & Chickamauga, Meridian & Bigbee, Luxapalila Valley, Tazewell & Peoria, Illinois & Midland, Riceboro Southern, First Coastal and Little Rock & Western. Many are concentrated in the Northeast and Southeast, but others are in strategic locations, like Arizona Eastern, Utah Railway and Portland & Western. In Canada, some shippers rely on the Quebec Gatineau, St. Lawrence & Atlantic or Huron Central, while in Holland and Belgium, the ports of Rotterdam and Antwerp are served by Rotterdam Rail Feeding.
Then there is Genesee & Wyoming Australia, where the major route is hardly a typical short line, about 1,400 miles from Tarcoola to Darwin. I can picture an Aussie watching a train passing through Alice Springs and saying, "I know what Wyoming is, but what the hell is a Genesee?"
Dick Hirsch is a longtime contributor to the Opinion page.6/1/12 (c) 2012 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.