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Short lines mark railroad renaissance

State's small-time hauling buisnesses are booming, leading nation in carriers

By Peter Durantine THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

PORT CLINTON --In this mountain village along the Schuylkill River 15 miles south of Pottsville, the Reading Blue Mountain & Northern Railroad is busier than ever.

As the largest carrier in the country of anthracite coal, Reading Blue Mountain has, like other short lines, benited from a combination of the sale of unwanted branch lines by big railraods, an industrial expansion, tenacity and luck.

Andrew Muller, Reading Blue Mountain's president, is a former commodities trader whose success at investing enabled him to retire before he turned 40. Muller became a railroad man 16 years ago, hauling 80 carloads of freight a year along 13 miles of track between Reading and the northern Berks County town of Hamburg.

Today, he owns 314 miles of track that branch out through the coal region, reaching Pottsville, Scranton and Hazelton. Next year, he expects to haul 25,000 carloads of coal, corn, sand, platic, steel -- you name it.

Reading Blue Mountain serves more than 100 customers in eight counties, but Muller said 35 percent of his buisness is hauling coal for export around the world.

"We move pretty much anything you buy," Muller said.

Once home to one of the world's mightiest railroads -- The Pennsylvania Railroad -- the state today has 70 short lines based or operating within its borders, more than any other state.

With Conrail's merger into Norfolk Southern and CSX, more than one-third of the nations freight rail traffic now goes through Pennsylvania, helping to boost the success of short lines.

Today, Pennsylvania porbably has the strongest regional short lines, said Phillip McFarren, president of Keyston State Railroad Administration, which was created four years ago.

"Many of those regional systems are $25 to $30 milion dollare in annual volume," he said.

However, operations were not always so profitable. Reading Blue Mountain's Muller said he lost millions of dollars before he started to make a profit in 1994.

Friday, September 17, 1999 Pittsburgh Tribune Review