John Howell’s column

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Abandonment of local railroad would  limit development

Though Batesville evolved essentially as a railroad town after the tracks of the Mississippi and Tennessee Railroad in 1858 reached what became the downtown Square, the current effort to preserve that rail line has little to do with history or nostalgia.

Illinois Central owned the line for most of its existence before it was acquired by Canadian National in 1998. CN continued IC’s policy of upgrading the Memphis-to-Jackson route through the “Valley” while providing minimum maintenance and upgrades on the older “Grenada” route that serves five Panola municipalities. CN spun off the older line to Grenada Railway, LLC in 2009. Now, citing a lack of rail customers between Grenada and Canton, Grenada Railway has sought permission to abandon that section without so much as a public hearing about its impact.

Fortunately, the Surface Transportation Board of the U. S. Department of Transportation has responded to the outcry from affected communities, shippers and their representatives in government and denied the railroad company’s attempt to abandon the track without a hearing.

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That hearing has now been set for 9 a.m. Wednesday, November 16, at the courthouse in Winona.

The extensive collection of comments that have appeared on the Surface Transportation Board’s Web site suggest an interesting pattern on the part of the nation’s wealthy and powerful railroads: CN planned to abandon the Memphis-to-Jackson Valley line all along. That’s been the trend where any railroad has duplicate lines between two major cities.

Yet CN did not want the negative public outcry and Congressional pressure that would come from taking rail service from small communities, so it sold the track instead, and presumably in a sweetheart deal, to A and K Railroad Materials through the Grenada Railway as its local operative.

Grenada Railway soon, according to former shippers who subsequently moved their freight business exclusively to trucks, cut services and raised prices. Then, having driven business away, the railroad cites a lack of customers to justify its proposal for rail abandonment, according to observers who have followed the abandonment of railroads across the nation.

Abandonment hardly describes what will happen if Grenada Railway is granted its wish. Its parent A and K Railroad Materials specializes in salvaging rail and other useable components for sale elsewhere, a market made lucrative by steel prices, Panola Partnership CEO Sonny Simmons said. Within weeks of approval, all salvageable material along the 80-mile route between Grenada and Canton will have been removed, leaving only vacant right-of-way.

The consequences for Panola County, Simmons said, assuming, as is suspected, that the Grenada-to-Canton abandonment is the first of a two-step process, is that it will “kill our chances for a large project.”

That’s not far-fetched. The Como mega-site that was seriously considered by Toyota in the late 1990s and early 2000s is still the first, viable mega-site on Interstate 55 south of Memphis. The absence of the possibility of rail service would remove that site from further consideration for an auto manufacturer or other major industry, Simmons warns.

Also removed from further consideration would be any site in at least nine counties now served by the rail line.

That has been the focus of the opponents of the abandonment, including the City of Batesville, Panola County and other affected counties and municipalities.

At the Winona hearing, abandonment opponents will attempt to convince the Surface Transportation Board to give them enough time to form a viable rail authority that would be able to negotiate to find a buyer for the line rather than allowing the abandonment to proceed.

At least one short line rail operator has shown interest. This time, it is a real short line operator, not a salvage company in short-line disguise.

That said, it is still an uphill fight.

But now, in an economy in crises driven by fuel prices, it seems short-sighted to abandon the most fuel-efficient means of shipping large volumes of freight. Not without allowing another rail company a chance to develop business along the line.

Abandonment curtails the potential for future economic growth in small towns throughout depressed rural communities in north Mississippi, effectively closing a door of opportunity.

Once those rails are removed, given the tremendous infrastructure, right-of-way requirements and regulatory hurdles that would be involved, they will never come back.