4 Railroad Lines Which Only Ran A Handful of Times (or Less)

Without attempting to sound needlessly pessimistic, most railroad proposals were doomed from the start. That isn't always a bad thing, as it's important to assess the needs of the route, capital and ongoing costs in running any business.

Usually if a proposal is going to be unsuccessful, the reasons are discovered in the planning, engineering, construction or completion phases before more cost is sunk into the project. There are many examples of these unbuilt railroads all across the world.

What is extremely uncommon, however, is for a railroad proposal to pass beyond each of the construction phases and then fail. Today we explore four examples of lines that only ran a handful of times before their abandonment.

If anyone knows of any other lines with an extremely short lifespan, let me know in the comments. This list doesn't include lines that were meant to be temporary, such as those in mining or construction.

4. Rosstown Railway
We begin Down Under in the suburbs of Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, where the Rosstown Railway was proposed in 1875 by entrepreneur William Murray Ross, who owned a sugar beet mill. 

Ross tried unsuccessfully for years to get approval for a line to run from his mill to the Port of Melbourne. Eventually, he gained approval for a line between Elsternwick Station, and a soon-to-be-built station at Oakdale, both of which are still in service today. By 1883, he was largely in debt, but nonetheless began construction on the route. He "completed" an unballasted right-of-way by 1884, however it was deemed substandard for rail transport.

A photo of the line under construction. Image: Rosstown Rail Trail
Ross offered to sell the line to Victorian Railways, however they rejected the sale. He was given more time to properly construct the road and incorporate it into the Victorian Railways system, however, he was unable to acquire enough credit to construct the line to standards of the State.

The only trains which ran on this route were construction trains using rented equipment. After 1891, no construction would continue. After Ross' death in 1904, it was offered up at auction, receiving no bids meeting the reserve price.

Today, part of the right of way survives as the Rosstown Railway Heritage Trail, which somewhat ironically preserves the line which never ran to began with.

A plaque commemorating the construction of the Rosstown Railway. Image: Wikipedia Commons
3. Port Penn Railroad

The Port Penn Railroad ran between Mt. Pleasant, DE and Port Penn, DE. It connected with the Pennsylvania Railroad at Mt. Pleasant and the Delaware River at Port Penn. It was only 8.5 miles long, constructed over a months-long period in 1918.

It was completed in September of that year, hauling supplies, materials and weapons to/from a proposed ammunition plant, as part of World War I. Passengers would've mainly been members of the US Military.

In Red: The ROW of the Port Penn Railroad during its 1918 run. Image: Port Penn Historical Society
The armistice ending the Great War was signed in November of that year, rendering the Port Penn Railroad and the rest of the project obsolete.

The line ran for a short period after the war in the dismantling of what construction had occurred, and was torn up afterwards, with the right of way returning to the original landowners. The railroad had one of the shortest lifespans of any operating railroad in the US, and yet, among railroads in this list, it had the most trains run along it, having been active for months.

As far as I know, no surviving photographs remain of operations along the line, as it was unknown to the Delaware Department of Transportation, who discovered it during an area archaeological survey.

Image: Delaware Department of Transportation, 2011

2. Rio Grande Northern Railroad

The Rio Grande Northern Railroad was chartered in 1893 and fully constructed two years later, running 26 miles between Chispa, TX and San Carlos, TX. It was built to connect with the Rio Grande south of its terminus, as well as tap into coal deposits, but no further trackage would be completed beyond San Carlos.

The ROW of the RGNRR on an 1892 USGS Topo Map. Image via Texas Transportation History
Ultimately, it would be all for naught, as the coal deposits proved uneconomical. Rio Grande Northern would never run a revenue train along the line. The San Carlos Coal Company used rented rolling stock to transport a few carloads of coal along the right of way, but traffic was otherwise completely barren.

The right of way included one of the very few railroad tunnels within the State of Texas at Bracks Canyon, making it a somewhat interesting historical footnote in Texas railroad history, even in spite of its abject failure as a railway.

A view of the abandoned RGNRR Tunnel, one of the only railroad tunnels in Texas. Image: Rim Rock Press
While this line lasted the longest between completion and abandonment, it still only ran one train along its right of way. On January 4th, 1897, less than two years after completion, its right of way was sold and abandoned.

1. Iron Range & Huron Bay Railroad
We've mentioned this line before, and it's truly fascinating. The Iron Range & Huron Bay Railroad was the brainchild of several businessmen from the Lower Peninsula of Michigan, who were looking to tap into the rich iron ore deposits of the Upper Peninsula. The IR&HB was chartered in 1890 to construct a line from Champion, MI to Huron Bay, ironically on the shores of Lake Superior.

One of the two used Baldwin locomotives used for the IR&HB Railroad. Image: Baraga County Historical Museum
The route was just over 30 miles in length, but construction proved tricky. The land was hilly, and required dozens of rock cuts and fills to make as smooth a grade as fiscally possible. What was a 500 man work force hired to build the road swelled to 1500, with the company struggling to pay them all.

"An 1890's photo of workers at Rock Cut" Image: Baraga County Historical Museum
Construction took three years, as well as a toll on the workers, as typhoid broke out. Cost overruns coincided with the Panic of 1893, which caused ore prices to plummet.

Although rails would be laid around the route, facing $2 million in construction costs and an inability to recover operating costs through ore sales, this railroad became an extremely unusual example of a line which was fully completed, but never had a revenue train run on it. In fact, the only train along the route ended up crashing during a test run. A railroad watchman told newspaper reporters about the first (and only) trip on the new railroad. “The engines were unloaded from the boats at Huron Bay. As the last eleven miles of the road was downgrade, it was decided to make a test run.” The engine was fired and Beck climbed into the cab with the engineer. “We had proceeded up the grade when the roadbed gave away and we went into the ditch.” The engine lay in the Peshekee. (Classen)

The company was sold for pennies on the dollar to Detroit Construction Company, and the rails were reused in some interurban railways in the Lower Peninsula of Michigan. One of the chief promoters of the road, Milo Davis, ran from lawsuits by going into hiding and living a fugitive's life.

Further Reading, "The Railroad that Never Ran: The Iron Range & Huron Bay Railroad" (Amazon)

Let me know of any other routes which had little to no trains in spite of completion. Thanks as always for reading!


  1. In Massachusetts there exists the roadbed of the Hampden Railroad, built between 1911 and 1913 by the Boston and Maine Railroad and the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad, which were jointly owned by the famous financier J.P. Morgan at the time. It was thirteen miles long if I recall, and was built as a bypass around Springfield to connect the New Haven's north-south line along the Connecticut River valley and the B&M's east-west Central Mass. Branch. No expense was spared in its construction, which included huge fills, elegant brick depots, and two enormous trestles spanning rivers. The 1915 breakup of the B&M and the New Haven left the then-completed project abandoned. It never saw revenue service; two inspection trains were the only traffic the line ever saw. Around 1925 it was sold for scrap, and a power line now runs along most of the right-of-way. Several impressive bridge abutments can be easily located, and a good bit of the old roadbed can be walked (be prepared for ticks). For further info., see Philip E. Johnson's book, "The Hampden Railroad: The Greatest Railroad that Never Ran."

  2. Doug,

    Thanks for the comment and information. I learned something new today! The line has been added to the abandoned railroad corridors map. Thanks again for sharing what you know!

  3. In the world of electric interurbans, the Fidalgo City and Anacortes, in Washington north of Seattle and east of Victoria BC, is reported by some sources as lasting for two years, but other sources say it only ran for a few trips on opening day in 1891 and was abandoned in 1893. In Sept. 2006 we went on an RV trip to Vancouver BC, and stayed overnight at the Fidalgo Bay RV Resort. The frontage road leading to the resort may have followed the short-live trolley line.

    1. Thanks for the comment! I have a (rough) trace of the line on the abandoned railroads map now. More information can be found here: https://anacortes.pastperfectonline.com/photo/1DC590D8-C3F6-4B84-983B-303830313402


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