Modeling Short Line Railroads

Found throughout North America, short line railroads serve as the “last mile” haulers for many freight cars. Often operating on a shoestring budget compared to class one railroads, these operations can be hidden gems of vintage locomotives and old-time railroading practices. In this article, we’re going to look at some of the hallmarks of short line railroads, and the advantages of modeling them.

What Are Short Lines?

Short lines are some of the smallest commercial freight operations found in North America, often running over just a few miles of track. The origin of the concept can be traced back to the golden era of railroading, where they would primarily serve single industry spurs or complexes such as harbors or steel mills. These early short lines were purpose built, and would often be owned and operated by the industries they served.

Today short lines have gained a far more valuable role in the wider freight railroading industry. As most class one operators turned their focus towards bulk transportation between hub terminals in the 1970s and 80s, many routes serving smaller communities and single-car industries were deemed as surplus to their needs. While some were abandoned outright, many others were saved by local startup operations with the goal of maintaining the viability of the region’s economy. As a result, short lines have cropped up across the continent, preserving routes which might otherwise have been lost. These unsung operations have arguably saved the economies of many small communities, and have grown to become a vital link in transcontinental freight transportation, feeding cars and revenue to class one railroads from coast to coast.

How do Short Lines Operate?

Most short line railroads rely on one or two key customers for the bulk of their revenue, but unlike industrial railroads of the past, they also remain open to any other business they can get. In the midwest, where railroad-mania resulted in the massive duplication of lines in the 19th century, short lines have ensured the continued operation of former trunk routes long after their use as through-routes has faded. These railroads primarily serve local agricultural facilities such as grain silos which were established during the route’s heyday. While industries like this may be the catalyst for a short line’s existence, many of these railroads will also offer boxcar service to local warehouses and manufacturing facilities, and will deliver materials such as propane or lumber to regional distributors. If the railroad is key to the survival of a customer, they might hold a stake in it’s operation.

If a short line needs to make a little extra revenue, another profitable venture is car storage. As market needs change in bulk transportation, class one railroads will routinely sideline certain types of car en-mass, and will pay short lines to store them along their routes until needed again. If the freight business dries up along a route, some will turn to offering passenger excursions as their primary source of income.

Why Model a Short Line?

Run Any Locomotive You Want

Short lines don’t have the financial strength of major railroads, and often pour the bulk of their earnings back into operation and maintenance. For this reason, they will generally run whatever locomotives they can get their hands on, and will continue to use them long after class one railroads have retired the type. Many will also prioritize function over appearance, and will leave them in the livery of their former owner (with the exception of patching out logos) resulting in the schemes of fallen flags still running long after the railroad they were painted for has folded. This makes short lines a haven for vintage locomotives and long lost paint schemes. If the short line you model has a tourist operation, you’d even have an excuse to run a steam locomotive!

Operational Possibilities

As we mentioned above, short lines will take any business they can get. This means that the sky is essentially the limit for the types of industries you can include on your layout. You also don’t necessarily have to stick with typical modern industries, as short lines are considered by many to be the last vestige of “1950s style” railroading. It’s common to see them taking single-car loads from small industries and old-time warehouses. This advantage is two-fold, as you can also save space by modeling a short line over a class one railroad, which in contrast might need a sweeping yard for intermodal or bulk transfer operations. And again, if your railroad has a tourist operation, this opens up the possibility of adding a passenger station or two.

Timeless Infrastructure

Due to their often limited finances, short lines don’t generally keep up with the latest in railroading technology. As such, along with their operational practices, their infrastructure can be somewhat outdated, giving you room to add features such as vintage crossings, signals, hand-throw switches, and classic structures alongside more modern elements. Their track is also often maintained to minimal acceptable levels, allowing you to get creative with overgrown ballast and grass between the rails.

Scenic Variety and Challenges

Short lines are typically branch line operations (although some do operate on former main lines). These were generally built to conform to the scenery of the region as a cost-saving measure, rather than blasting through it. While in reality this made for slower trips and less efficiency, from a model railroading perspective this provides a lot of possibilities for scenic variation. From tight curves following wooded creeks, to steep grades climbing desert canyons, the choices are endless. Do you want to include a small town lost in time, or a gritty downtown where the train passes between skyscrapers? Either are possible on a short line!


At the end of the day, short lines are simply fun to model. While mainline modeling is enjoyable in it’s own right, there’s no other type of railroading that offers the same variation and flexibility to a modeler as short lines. Even on a larger layout, a short line can add an enjoyable dynamic element to your operations, allowing for interchange opportunities with your mainline.

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Prototype images used with permission by James Anthony