Railroad grant huge, Polar Express train still uncertain
Mona tried to tell me
To stay away from the train line
She said that all the railroad men
Just drink up your blood like wine …
— Dylan’s Stuck Inside of Mobile
with the Memphis Blues Again
It remains to be seen what impact the Grenada Railroad $7.4 million railroad rehab grant announced August 3 will have on the Polar Express. Ideally, having that money to spend on rehab, repair and replacement could free up other money to finally pay off all creditors from last year’s Polar Express Train Ride. That’s the city’s line in the sand for again agreeing to lease the Square to the railroad for Polar Express use. Time is growing short.
Events since 2009 when CN Railroad announced its sale of the 187 miles of track between Memphis and Canton to a railroad salvage company have substantiated the reason for alarm then sounded by local economic development and government officials. They saw written on the wall handwriting that said this railroad is going to get taken apart and sold for scrap. Citizens, local and state leaders soon organized a coalition to get something going that would forestall abandonment.
With an act of the State Legislature in 2014, the North Central Mississippi Regional Railroad Authority (NCMRRA) was created from the coalition and authorized to issue bonds toward purchase of the railroad. Meanwhile, the railroad salvage company, citing low freight volume, announced its intention to abandon the Grenada-to-Canton segment of track.
Cobbling together $30 million in bonds and a $13 million loan from the Mississippi Development Authority, the NCMRRA was able to buy the railroad in August, 2015, for $43 million, its salvage value. NCMRRA had lined up Iowa Pacific Holdings as the operator under a lease agreement. IP kept the Grenada Railroad name and agreed to service the debt. They also agreed to have the Grenada-to-Canton segment open within two years.
But it has not been easy. Once they took over, Grenada Railroad officials discovered that the former owner had removed the signals at each crossing between Grenada and Canton — high dollar signals. You simply can’t run a railroad over tracks that have no signals at the crossings.
So Grenada Railroad decided to move their trains slowly over the tracks (the only speed the tracks could handle anyway) while placing flagmen at each crossing as train approached to give motorists plenty of warning. Nope, the Surface Transportation Board told them: before you move any trains over those tracks, all the signals have to be replaced.
Elsewhere along the line, Grenada Railroad officials have found switches — the devices that allow the train to transfer from its main line onto a sidetrack — removed. (If you’re a salvage company, and you want to abandon a rail line, you can site a lack of revenue from freight as a reason. If you can’t get to freight customers because you can’t get on their sidetracks, you can’t do business that generates revenue. Vicious cycle easily accelerated if you’ve removed switches.)
That’s what Batesville’s mayor and aldermen heard about last week from Partnership CEO Joe Azar, City Engineer Blake Mendrop and a Grenada Railroad marketing official. A switch that once allowed the train to enter the siding between the Job Corps center and Andersen Technologies had been removed.
The work ahead is staggering. The burned out bridge over the Yalobusha River must be replaced, and the Coldwater River bridge that is still being used has long serviced on borrowed time.
That rail grant that Senators Wicker and Cochran announced last week is huge but still falls short of the money needed. Hopefully, repairs and replacement with the grant funds can be skillfully managed so that service can resume over the entire 187 miles and that will allow the railroad to generate more revenue to continue upgrades.
It would be hard to find an economic engine (bad pun) with more potential for economic stimulation than a railroad. It would be impossible to re-establish a rail line once it is abandoned.
And the Polar Express? That’s the icing on the cake. Batesville needs the Polar Express, and the Polar Express needs Batesville. We hope that the differences can be resolved.