John Howell Sr. editorial 7/7/2015

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Once-threatened local rail line now poised for business

The recent announcement that the rail line that runs through Panola County is being purchased from its present owner by the North Central Mississippi Rail Road Authority (NCMRRA) with plans to lease the operation to the Illinois Company Rail Road owned by Iowa Pacific Holdings puts to rest fears that the line would be scrapped for salvage.

Worry among us locals about losing the rail line altogether predates Amtrak’s 1995 decision to move its rail passenger service between Memphis and Jackson from the “Grenada” line to the “Valley” line. Then owner Illinois Central owned the parallel rail lines. From the railroad company’s perspective it made little sense to maintain two rail lines connecting the same cities. Illinois Central (IC) opted for the “Valley” line where its locomotives have more miles of level terrain over which to pull their rail cars.

(Even before 1995, Batesville rail watcher Stan Harrison had been warning us. He had observed IC constantly improving its more westerly rail route while providing minimum maintenance for the Grenada line.)

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By 2009, the lines had been acquired from Illinois Central by Canadian National Railroad (CN), which sold the Grenada line to a company whose primary business is the salvage of rail. Local worries about rail loss were compounded even though the new owner formed the Grenada Railway LLC to maintain the 187-mile route between Canton and Southaven and to pledged to continue local freight service with its trains.

What became the NCMRRA organized as a coalition that year as representatives of the eight or nine counties affected — Holmes to DeSoto — joined their concern, a concern compounded within a few years when Grenada Railway announced its intention to abandon the line from Grenada south because of a lack of rail freight customers. Potential rail freight customers said that Grenada Railway raised rates and operated with little consideration of their shipping schedules.

The coalition was able to successfully convince the Mississippi legislature that the rail line is vital to the economy of this area of the state, convincing the legislature to create NCMRRA and to issue $130 million in bonds for the rail line’s purchase. When the rail line’s appraisal placed its value at $143 million, the Mississippi Development Authority stepped in with a $13 million loan.

NCMRRA is composed of about 60 members appointed from the affected counties and municipalities. Those from Panola include Jerry Autrey, Daniel Cole, Judy Gravatt, Stan Harrison, Danny Holland, Lula Palmer, Tracy Pickett, Sonny Simmons, Arleane Simpson and Benjamin Clyde Webb.

From those 60 was chosen a seven-member executive committee chaired by Water Valley Mayor Larry Hart.

Hart has had successful career in business and public service, but he was first a railroad man, an engineer on the Illinois Central whose heart has never been very far from it.

Grenada County Economic Development District Executive Director Pablo Diaz played a yeoman’s role in the coordinating, cajoling, lobbying and leadership that kept the organization together as lawyers, including Grenada attorney Jay Gore, convinced the National Surface Transportation Board to extend its abandonment deadlines to allow time for the state legislature to create NCMRRA and authorize issuance of the bonds.

Panola Partnership CEO Sonny Simmons was among those doing the heavy lifting on the executive committee as were Tim Climer of Tate County, Bobby Oliver of Carroll County, Sue Stidham of Montgomery County and Robin McCrory of Holmes County.

Iowa Pacific is personified by its owner, Ed Ellis, who, along with other officials of the company, made at least two trips through Batesville last week. His companies operate ten short line railroads in eight states and in the United Kingdom.

“They are the best operators of short line railroads in the country,” Harrison said.

Iowa Pacific representatives are contacting potential freight customers all along the line, prompting Batesville officials to plan for renovation of the abandoned rail spur that serves the W. M. Harmon Industrial Complex. (That’s in addition to their bombshell revelation that they want to base a Polar Express Train Ride in Batesville this year.)

“We’re in business to build business,” Ellis said.