Short line railroads are generally not eligible for disaster relief funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). All railroads carry insurance, but small railroads cannot obtain coverage for the level of destruction that can be inflicted by major disasters. As small operations with very high capital costs, these railroads have limited resources to deal with these kinds of events.
The Short Line Railroad Relief Act, introduced in June of 2023, would create a dedicated program to assist Class II and III railroads that are severely impacted by declared disasters.
This bill is a bipartisan initiative, led by Rep. Byron Donalds (R-FL). Rep. Donalds’ district was struck by Hurricane Ian in 2022, a federally-declared disaster. This powerful Category 5 storm was the fifth strongest hurricane in history to hit the U.S., causing more than $109 billion in damages in Florida alone as it passed through the Southeastern U.S.
A wooden railway trestle burns due to wildfire
Many types of natural disasters have the potential to inflict this type of damage on local short line railroad networks, like storms, floods and earthquakes, which can cause massive damage to track and structures. Wildfires can destroy the many timber bridges and trestles that are still in service across the nation’s 600+ short line railroad networks.
Damage to short line track from Hurricane Idalia in South Carolina (Disaster EM-3597-SC)
It is imperative to restore basic infrastructure promptly following a disaster to facilitate the broader response and recovery efforts. Short line service is a key piece of the recovery, shipping relief supplies and materials in, and damaged materials out of the area.
When freight rail service is interrupted, cargo that can shift to truck will do so, with all the associated impacts.
Short line railroads are generally not eligible for disaster relief funding from FEMA. While all railroads carry insurance, small railroads cannot obtain high levels of catastrophic coverage for the level of destruction that can be inflicted by major storms, earthquakes, wildfires, and other disasters. As small operations with very high capital costs, these railroads have limited resources to deal with these kinds of events. U.S. DOT has emergency relief programs in the Federal Transit Administration and Federal Highway Administration. But there is nothing at the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) that can be deployed to assist small railroads facing disaster damages. The program envisioned in Rep. Donalds’ bill is designed to kick in after resources available to a railroad are exhausted.
“Short line railroads are responsible for transporting a variety of goods across the country, and without support from Congress, many are forced to close shop after a natural disaster because of inadequate federal relief,” said Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials Subcommittee Chairman Troy E. Nehls. “These small businesses must receive the support they need to stay afloat and keep our country moving after a natural disaster. I am proud to join my colleague, Congressman Byron Donalds, to provide much-needed relief for our nation’s short line railroads.”
Congress recognized this gap in the federal disaster relief framework in 2008 with a $20 million one-time appropriation, responding to a cluster of disasters that damaged short lines. These resources were successfully deployed to 17 short lines that were impacted by disasters. The permanent program proposed in H.R. 3782 is in part modeled on this successful effort.
The Seminole Gulf Railway, a short line freight railroad carrying more than 2,600 carloads a year — the equivalent to 10,000 big commercial trucks — was severely impacted by this storm. Critical infrastructure components including track, bridges, structures, and equipment were demolished. Losses were in the tens of millions of dollars.
This 118-mile-long short line railroad is an important provider of freight mobility in this part of the state and the sole provider of freight rail service for shippers in many growing communities in southwest Florida. Large stretches of the railroad were put out of service indefinitely.
Watch this news clip showing the impact of SGLR’s recovery efforts to the regional community:
The public is keenly aware of the impact of rising rates and severity of natural disasters. The establishment of this program will be an important investment in the resiliency of our economy and communities in the face of the inevitable disasters to come.
• This program fills an obvious gap in the federal infrastructure disaster response framework.
• This program will support community resilience in the face of disasters, protect freight mobility and supply chains, and will help keep cargo off roads and on more efficient, safer, and cleaner freight rail.