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Rail transit group wants to see more service in northern Wisconsin
Photo: CN refurbished this road near Weyerhaeuser, Wis., to accommodate shipments by the frac sand industry.
By Paul Nicolaus
An effort to enhance rail service on once-active corridors in Northwestern
Wisconsin and Upper Michigan is gaining momentum.
Leading the drive is Northwoods Rail Transit Commission (NRTC), which has
gained confi dence as Iron, Ontonagon and Dickinson counties in the UP all
passed resolutions or motions to join the effort.
Wendy Gehlhoff, NRTC chair and director of the Florence County Economic
Development Corporation (FCEDC), believes the group can be effective.
“Additional Michigan and Wisconsin counties will be joining in the next few
months as we continue promoting the importance of restoring and improving
freight rail service so existing businesses can reduce transportation costs, and new businesses will consider our region for expansion or relocation,” she said.
The effort began with a 2011 meeting that was followed last year by the formation of NRTC. Proponents say the commission is needed because rail usage on northern Wisconsin lines has declined, and reports are surfacing that more rail sections could be taken out of service or officially abandoned by
Canadian National Railway Co. (CN).
Former Forest County Board Chair Erhard Huettl wrote a letter to a number of colleagues asking for representatives to attend the 2011 meeting, which was held in Oneida County. Although he hadn’t yet begun working in his current role as the Oneida County Economic Development Director, Roger Luce was asked to attend that meeting and became chair of the group.
“We were just a committee of interested entities – both governmental and business – who wanted to see better service,” Luce said. “The feeling among many of the businesses was that the service level had dropped” when Wisconsin Central was acquired by Canadian National.
Companies located along the line had become accustomed to Wisconsin Central’s short line model as opposed to the Class I model that incorporates much larger unit trains, he said.
The most important conversation held during those initial gatherings, Luce said, was when the group decided to form a rail commission among several counties along the rail corridor. They stretch from Ashland to Prentice and from Prentice to Marinette County. Since then, the group has continued to chug
“As we add all the northern Wisconsin and Upper Peninsula of Michigan counties that contain Canadian National lines, our list of potential rail shipping businesses will grow as will the volumes available to ship by rail,” Gehlhoff said.
Members of the NRTC have worked with the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT) to quantify potential freight volumes, and in late September the final report was completed. Gehlhoff pointed to the findings that the vast majority – more than 90 percent – of the annual inbound freight of
7.9 million tons and outbound freight of 11 million tons in the study area is being shipped by truck, and much of that freight consists of heavy bulk commodities such as lumber, wood products and non-metallic minerals.
When those figures are considered alongside the main benefits of rail transit, she noted that there “appears to be a missed opportunity for strong rail service in and out of the region.”
Rail transit is safer per mile than other forms of transportation; it produces fewer emissions than truck, water or air travel, and it is three times more efficient than trucks, Gehlhoff said.
She also noted that according to survey results, 43 businesses would be interested in rail service if inactive lines were put back into service, and WisDOT estimates that those 43 businesses alone could account for an additional 7,100 rail carloads of freight per year.
Upper Michigan is currently on track to complete a similar survey.
“By combining survey data and follow-up shipper quantifications in both Wisconsin and Michigan, NRTC hopes to identify new freight volumes sufficient to compel Canadian National to restore and upgrade rail lines in our region or lease the rail lines to a short line operator who is interested in doing
so,” Gehlhoff said.
It costs about $1 million to $1.5 million per mile to rehabilitate a track to today’s 120-pound rail standard, Luce noted, explaining that because of this cost there would have to be compelling reasons for a company like CN to make such sizable investments.
A case in point is the recent frac sand explosion and CN’s decision to invest in infrastructure improvements related to growing demand. CN’s investments totaled $35 million to rebuild an out-of-service line running from Barron to Ladysmith and an additional $33 million to upgrade track between Wisconsin
Rapids and Whitehall.
While the timber resources and mine exploration projects within the northern portions of Wisconsin and Michigan could provide long-term contracts that are attractive to rail companies and may lead to similar rail improvements, Luce believes it would be more likely for CN to lease or sell the road to a
short line operator that could then attempt to build business one rail car at a time.
“The short line goes out and really works hard to increase the number of entities that are using the rail line,” he said, explaining that wood chips, round logs and biomass are all examples of materials that could be hauled.
Luce’s train of thought involves finding a way to sit down with CN and work out a mutually beneficial scenario. From his perspective, if the company were willing to either lease or outright sell its road to a short line, an agreement could be made to feed everything off that line to CN’s through line, which runs
from Duluth/Superior, through Neenah, down to Chicago and beyond.
“Railroads do play and are going to increasingly play a bigger role in efficiently transporting product to and from destinations,” Luce added. “We’ll keep the dialog going with Canadian National and with other short line providers to see if they can’t, on their own, have a match made in heaven. That would be good for us and good for everybody in the north.”Previous BusinessNorth Exclusives Articles:
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