Experts say there is need for rail
May 6, 2021
By TOM LAVENTURE
The deterioration of east-west short line rail links in northern Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula has resulted in the loss of vital links to major rail lines that connect to markets on the east and west coast — and that limits the potential growth of industry, said John Duncan Varda, a Wisconsin attorney representing the Wisconsin Central Group freight rail stakeholders coalition, and the Lake States Shippers Association cooperative. He spoke to a group on April 29 in Hurley, in a meeting that was also streamed to participants as far as Houghton County.
Members of the Northern Rail Transportation Commission were present, which includes elected county board members from Ashland, Florence, Forest, Iron, Lincoln, Marathon, Marinette, Oconto, Oneida, Rusk counties in Wisconsin, and Baraga, Delta, Dickinson, Houghton, Gogebic, Marquette, Menominee and Ontonagon counties in Michigan.
Varda would like to form a committee of government and industry officials to work toward a goal of restoring the defunct White Pine and Marengo short line rail systems should the Surface Transportation Board approve the March 30 sale of 650 miles of Canadian National (CN) branch lines of the Wisconsin Central Ltd., to Watco Companies LLC, a service and logistics company that operates over 600 miles of track in Wisconsin along with transportation, maintenance, warehouse and shipping logistics.
The sale includes the currently defunct lines from Ashland to Prentice and from White Pine to Marengo, along with 250 miles on the Soo subdivision from Sault Ste. Marie to Oba, Ontario. If the sale is approved then Varda said it will take a grassroots effort to convince Watco that the former lines will be viable again with data to support the need, he said.
The Ashland and Marengo tracks were allowed to deteriorate to the point that the entire northern line has ceased to exist, said Joseph Pinardi, chair of the Iron County Board of Commissioners. Local industries have a strong interest in utilizing rail but the option is no longer there — until the Watco purchase, which seems to be a “real attempt” to restore the short line routes and service to the region again, he said.
“I think we’re going in the right direction, finally,” Pinardi said. “Start out small and keep getting bigger. That is what I’m hoping.”
Joe Bonovetz, a Gogebic County Commissioner, said that attempts to convince CN to open the White Pine and Ashland lines have not moved forward for seven years. The outlook seems better with Watco entering the picture and the question now is how much work it will take to make it happen, he said.
“There’s a lot of potential here,” Bonovetz said. “We just need to work together.”
Ken Lucht, assistant vice president of government and industry relations for Watco, attended the meeting virtually and said the new “Fox Valley & Lake Superior Rail System,” has that name for a reason. Watco’s interests include the potential for Ashland and White Pine, but strategies require a comprehensive approach that considers potential traffic and economics, he said.
“We’re not letting any mile of track out of our sights,” Lucht said. “Everything is on the table.”
Watco has the capacity to restore the lines, he said. The company has already restored the previously defunct Wisconsin and Southern Railroad line of around 50 miles of track that had been out of service for 25 years and is now in service with a raised classification to class two gauge for 286,000 pounds at 25 mph.
“So we have a history of doing that where it makes sense,” Lucht said.
The communities will get behind rail line restoration in northern Wisconsin, and the customers will be there as well, he said. It may take some time and it’s going to take some money.
“But that will force us to think outside the box,” Lucht said.
Short line rail in central and southern Wisconsin, particularly south of Stevens Point, was possible through public and private partnerships, he said. This model should work well for northern Wisconsin, he said.
“I can assure you that everything is going to be on the table,” Lucht said. “We’re going to, for the most part, try to start off fresh, start off new, without having any interruptions and current service plans. We’re going to grow the service plan, we’re going to grow the volume and we’re going to grow the frequency. And we certainly hope to do that in the far northern part of Ashland and in Iron County.”
Infrastructure of this magnitude requires a competitive plan to attract the funding from grants and other investment private investment, Varda said. This is the best time for this potential project to move forward after the sale and with so much pandemic relief and infrastructure investment funding commitment at the federal level, he said.
Wood will help the rail lines start by shortening the trucking of wood to the mills by 30 to 90 miles with railroad loading sites, he said. But the long term sustainability will come from shipping other industry goods through an interdependent network of short line rail systems that connect with major rail lines.