John Howell Column

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 2, 2009

John Howell Sr.

Large, diverse group concerned with rail’s future

At a meeting last week about the pending sale of the eastern rail line connecting Memphis and Canton, Representative Warner McBride commented that he had not seen in a long time such a diverse group working together on a project in this part of the state.

Elected and appointed officials of governments and economic developers overflowed the auditorium at the North Mississippi Fish Hatchery, all concerned about the future of the rail line that runs north of Canton to connect Durant, Winona, Grenada, Batesville, Sardis, Senatobia, Hernando and Memphis.

Owner CN Railroad has announced plans to sell the line in June to Grenada Railway LLC, a non-carrier affiliate of V and S Railway and A and K Railroad Materials, the former an operator of short line railroads, the latter a salvager of rail and other reusable materials.

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CN operates its parallel line “Valley Line” through the Delta between Memphis and Jackson. Valley Line tracks have been upgraded and maintained as Class I rail. CN cited a lack of freight traffic over its eastern “Grenada Line” as reason for the sale.

“There’s not a person here who didn’t suspect in the back of their mind that this was coming,” commented one person at the meeting.

The sale component includes an agreement between CN and Grenada Railway LLC that the latter will operate the line for two years after the sale. After that, the rails and other salvageable materials may be pulled up and sold. One estimate placed the line’s salvage value at $35 million.

“They’re going to operate it two years and then they’re going to close it if there’s no profit,” said another who attended the meeting, C and G Railroad President Roger Bell.

Yet the gloomy outlook for the future rail service through eastern Yazoo, eastern Holmes, Carroll, Montgomery, Grenada, Yalobusha, Panola, Tate and DeSoto counties may come at the time when on the horizon may loom a growing realization of the need for more rail freight service and the money to pay for restoring rail infrastructure.

The North Central Mississippi Rail Authority was created last year to rebuild the C and G route connecting the Tombigee Waterway port at Columbus with the Mississippi River port at Greenville. That connection was severed in 2001 when a bridge washed out in Carroll County. The tracks have since fallen into a poor state of repair with trees growing up between them. An estimate of the cost of restoring that route is $70 million.

The 2009 state legislature appropriated $12 million for the Mississippi Railroad Revitalization Fund. The North Central Mississippi Rail Authority had sought $14 million as seed money for the C and G restoration, but the Senate amended the bill to make the $12 million available to other Mississippi freight rail operators.

C and G and the North Mississippi Central Rail Authority continue to plow ahead. At last week’s meeting, C and G President Bell cited several factors favorable to rail that have arisen in recent years.

Currently, C and G’s service is primarily limited to serving the Serverstal steel mill at Columbus. Yet the mill needs a rail outlet on the Mississippi River for its product, Bell said.

The unforeseen shift of the Delta’s main agricultural stay from cotton to corn is another factor that has increased the need for rail capacity.

“In 2001 we couldn’t foresee these things that have developed,” Bell said.

On the north/south route, the abandonment of which created the concern that generated the turnout for last week’s meeting, pending industrial expansions in at least two counties are predicated on rail spurs to be constructed to connect to the Grenada line, developers stated. With only two years of rail service assured, those expansions may be in doubt.

Yet construction of rail spurs to industrial sites do not necessarily lead to more rail cars of freight. The spur at Batesville’s W. M. Harmon Industrial Complex was built at the insistence of several occupants who required access to rail as a condition for locating there. Yet a rail car is seldom moved across those tracks. Industries often access as a back to trucking, developers say.

And the railroads themselves can create a self-fulfilling prophecy, said one veteran railroad employee who attended the meeting. “Service gets poor, loadings get less,” when the railroad company wants to justify abandoning a marginal line, he said.

Last week’s meeting should have convinced participants that they are not alone in their concerns about declining rail service in Mississippi. Yet to date, most areas threatened with a loss of rail service have often struggled independently and alone.

The legislature’s appropriation to the Mississippi Railroad Revitalization Fund and its creation of the Mississippi Department of Transportation Freight Master Plan Technical Advisory Committee is a step towards recognizing the need for a coordinated, state level response to proposed rail abandonments.

The numbers of people at last week’s meeting and the government and development capacities they represented was encouraging, but it was only a step. Hopefully it was an important step in reversing the trend of decades of rail abandonment.