Wayne Defebaugh had never worked for a railroad before he came to Sulphur Springs in 1999 to start his own shortline, Blacklands Railroad, on less than 40 miles of decaying rails and ties.
“I came home one day and told my wife that’s what I wanted to do, and she’s like, ‘Yeah, right,’” he said. “It’s actually a dream kind of thing, and it’s all starting to come around.”
After 10 years of hard work, Blacklands Railroad, located in a refurbished depot on Church Street by the tracks about four blocks north of downtown, has been named one of the best shortline railroads in the nation by Railway Age magazine, a leading trade publication for the industry.
Blacklands didn’t earn the Shortline Railroad of the Year award, but it was one of 10 given honorable mentions in the magazine’s annual rankings. With more than 500 shortlines operating in the United States, Defebaugh rightfully feels proud of the designation.
Defebaugh said the railroad was singled out for two reasons: safety and growth. The company has received the Jake Award for safety from the American Shortline and Regional Railroad Association every year of its existence, meaning they have never had a lost-time injury on the job.
The growth has been just as impressive.
“In 1999 when we started here, we moved about 250 carloads a year, and we’re up to 5,000 now,” said Defenbaugh. “It’s all due to us working with the communities and the economic development people. We’ve been able to [retain] the old customers that wanted us here years ago but also. added new ones. That’s really upped our carloads.
“My whole thing is customer service and working with the local people to try to grow the business and grow the economies of the area and the counties. We’re looking to expand and help all the communities along the way here.”
The company came into being after the original owner of the rail line, Southern Pacific, moved to abandon the railway. Twenty miles of track had been pulled up between Greenville and Wylie before local officials, including former Hopkins County Judge Joe Minter and Franklin County Justice of the Peace Paul Lovier, formed the Northeast Texas Rural Rail Transportation District. The governmental organization was able to negotiate with Union Pacific (which had acquired Southern Pacific by the late 1990s) to acquire the track between Sulphur Springs and Greenville.
But, they needed someone to maintain and use the tracks, and one shortline operator had already failed by the time Defenbaugh arrived.
“We started out with one locomotive moving four or five cars at a time,” he recalled. “It was just me and one other guy, a conductor, and that was it.”
Today, Defebaugh and his partner, Frank Turner, employ seven full-time workers, and also hire 10 contractors on a regular basis, and have five locomotives pulling 30 and 40 rail cars at a time on 75 miles of track between Mount Pleasant and Greenville.
They haul a little bit of everything for customers along the line, including plastics and resins, feed ingredients and fertilizers, coiled and scrap metal, bricks, paper commodities, chemicals and more. Blacklands also moves a lot of the feed products for Northeast Texas Farmers Co-op and Farmer’s Supply Co.
The railroad can also connect with the Union Pacific in Mount Pleasant and Kansas City Southern Railways in Sulphur Springs, giving customers access to two Class 1 railroads.
Defebaugh’s attraction to the industry comes naturally — his father spent 32 years as a conductor and brakeman for the BNSF (Burlington Northern Santa Fe) railroad. But when Defebaugh graduated from college in the 1980s, the railroad industry was in a deep depression. Instead, he went into the food business and later worked for a pipe company.
In 1997, he read a Wall Street Journal article about a man who started his own shortline railroad, and Defebaugh decided it was time to change careers.
“Almost everybody at Union Pacific didn’t think we’d be here after a year,” said Defebaugh, who started the company on “retirement money and shoestrings. But we kept building and building, and finally, in the last three or four years, we’ve gotten to where we can kind of pay the bills and keep everything going.
“It’s been a long road, but it’s starting to pay off a little bit now.”
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