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twin rail line
Photograph by DWS-Montag Zen, 2009

The premise

The story of the Arcade & Attica won’t be simply another cute one-hour documentary about a quaint but microscopic part of American history.

Railroads comprise an exceptionally vital part of the nation’s transportation system. Well over a third of all freight movement happens on rails. Why, in some places, they even transport passengers by rail!

Class one map

North America has ten Class 1 railroads (this number varies by source and might be as low as six), each generating billions of dollars in revenue annually. Almost six hundred Class 2 rail companies carry nearly a third of all rail freight traffic. At the bottom are the numerous and often tiny Class 3 lines, each with annual sales of less than twenty million dollars. (These days, the kid peddling dope at the corner pulls in more than that.)

The number of miles of track won’t tell you which railroads are successful and which cling to life on the slenderest of threads. What matters is the tonnage of revenue traffic. In extreme cases, where everything is optimized and a single train can weigh in at over 15,000 tons, it can cost the railroad less than one cent to move one ton of customers’ freight one mile. They add in a little to keep the shareholders happy and sell the service at extremely attractive prices.

But, what does the railroad do when there’s almost no traffic?

The Arcade & Attica has faced this problem for a long time. Their sole regular customer, a large feed mill at the northern terminus of the line, generates traffic two or three days a week, and it’s only a few cars each time. How can even a railroad with very modest costs go on operating?

As in real estate, it’s all about location. The country’s shortest railroad, with about half a mile of track, does well by virtue of connecting two mainline freight yards. The A & A is situated in Wyoming County, a grand place for agriculture but desolate for industry. A few times a week, they swap three or four freight cars between the feed mill at the north end of the line and the Norfolk Southern junction at the south end.

What can they do?

steam locomotive with engineer

They did find a way, but it has an iffy future. They run New York State’s only scheduled steam passenger service, with regularly sold-out excursions each summer. Their tracks have a bizarrely low speed limit, and they have turned this into an attraction, with the train chugging slowly through some lovely countryside.

The dragon lurking in the brush is not far off: they have two steam locomotives, around a hundred years old, and only one is usable. The estimated cost of rehabilitating the other is said to be one million dollars, and the engine that works now requires constant maintenance.

It is easy to praise railroads like the A & A as an essential part of America’s culture and justify their preservation, but, at the end of the day, the money to sustain this or any other enterprise must come from a consistently reliable source. The bigger railroads do it by keeping bigger customers happy, and the Class 2 railroads often succeed quite impressively at providing exemplary service to a great many smaller customers. But, if there is no industry on your line, with hundreds of tons moving daily, what do you do? This is the question which we will pose.

Where is this project now?

Much of the footage for this documentary has already been shot. Samples of it may be seen here.

For full-length mock-ups in medium and high quality, please click here.

Supplementary filming will bring the story up to date, but it’s now mainly a matter of editing and generating a network-ready version of the program.

Santa Fe yard at night
From a photograph by Jack Delano, United States Farm Security Administration, 1943

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