Saturday, December 2, 2023

Aberdeen & Rockfish still on track after 125 years

By Rebecca Logan

Photo courtesy of B. Donald McKenzie/Aberdeen & Rockfish

When a business has been around for 125 years with involvement from the same family, there are plenty of things to talk about at anniversary gatherings like one held this year for the Aberdeen & Rockfish Railroad Co.

There are the sandy, thick pine forests through which the railroad was first built in 1892 to serve turpentine and logging operations. There are the hundreds of thousands of soldiers and mountains of ammunition that rode its rails during World War II, when it was said of its zigzag track that “Hitler’s bombers couldn’t hit it twice on a bet.”

Troops, textiles, peaches, newsprint, chemicals: The list of what the A&R has hauled is long. Its track is not. With roughly 50 miles in Cumberland, Hoke and Moore counties (plus a bit in South Carolina), the A&R is classified as a short-line railroad — a category that has in recent decades encountered some rough terrain. The 550 short-line railroads operating in the U.S. are the first or last link between small-town businesses and farmers and larger, long-distance carriers. A&R’s customer roster has included names such as 84 Lumber, FCI farm chemicals, Hexion, Parker Gas and Valley Proteins. Continuing the railroad’s tradition of hard work and adaptability will be key to the future of the A&R, says its eighth and current president, Garland Horton.

“The railroad industry is getting tougher all the time. You have to continue to add new customers, add new industries,” Horton says. “If you don’t, you’re going to lose. That’s probably our biggest struggle and our biggest driver right now.”

The railroad was key in landing projects like Virginia-based Tyton Biofuels’ ethanol biorefinery in Raeford, says Steve Yost, president of North Carolina’s Southeast Regional Economic Development Partnership. Rail service is essential for bringing in corn from the Midwest. “That’s a company that has a vision,” Yost says about the A&R. “They are an integral part of what we do when we have industrial clients that may need rail accessibility.”

Running a short-line railroad is a “capital-intensive proposition,” according to a 2017 report from the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association. Short lines reinvest an average of 25% to 33% of revenue in capital expenditures and maintenance costs, according to the report.

The Blue family has long maintained ownership in Aberdeen & Rockfish. Retired Charlotte investment banker Bill Blue is a railroad director. About 40 members of the extended Blue family attended the 125th celebration. “There aren’t too many short-line railroads still under that kind of ownership,” Horton says. “That’s pretty significant.”

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