Rail worries surfacePublished 12:06am Saturday, August 27, 2011
NATCHEZ — The worst fears of local officials and economic development go-getters concerning the railroad in Southwest Mississippi recently materialized in the northern part of the state.
Owners of Grenada Railway LLC published a legal notice Aug. 12 saying they intend to file a petition Sept. 15 to abandon an 81-mile stretch of railroad from Grenada to Canton.
The Grenada railroad and Natchez railroad share similar ownership.
Both rail companies were purchased in 2009 from CN — formerly called Canadian National — by newly created entities Grenada Railway LLC and Natchez Railway LLC, respectively. Both owners have deep ties to each other and to A & K Railroad Materials, one of the nation’s leading railroad scrapping companies.
Dan Bland, one of the Adams County appointees to the Southwest Mississippi Regional Railroad Authority, said owners’ attempts to abandon the local railroad in Grenada foreshadow plans for what might happen in Natchez.
“This is an example of my worst fears,” Natchez Inc. Executive Director Chandler Russ said of the petition to abandon Grenada Railway.
Both the Natchez and Grenada railroad contracts included a clause saying the railroad must stay operational for a minimum of two years before filing for abandonment.
June marked the passing of two years since the sale of Natchez Railway, and the Grenada railroad was sold at approximately the same time.
The Southwest Mississippi railroad authority was created earlier this year through state legislation and the Adams County Board of Supervisors’ own unanimous vote.
“(The threat of abandonment) is why we put the (railroad) authority in place as a backstop measure to begin with,” Russ said.
The 15-member authority, which is comprised of five people from Adams, Franklin and Lincoln counties, met for the first time in May. The authority has the power to purchase the railroad to prevent its scrapping if its current owners attempt to abandonment.
“(The current situation with Grenada Railway) is what we’ve been protecting ourselves from,” Russ said.
Counties with a stake in the future of the Grenada railroad, which runs through Montgomery, Carrol, Holmes, Yazoo and Madison counties, do not have a railroad authority.
Pablo Diaz, the executive director of the Grenada County Economic Development District, said while the Grenada railroad has a number of current customers, the biggest concern is its impact on luring prospective industries to the region.
“Having access to Jackson (via railroad) is a selling point for economic development,” Diaz said.
Diaz said he has been working with other economic development entities, which benefit from the railroad, to weigh options for saving the railroad.
Diaz said he does not have enough information to know whether to feel good or bad about the chances of saving the railroad.
“I can’t say I feel one way or the other,” Diaz said.
Bland said the authority is exploring a number of options to counteract possible abandonment efforts as well as rate increases for customers using local rail services.
“We have got to do something, and we are acting as fast as we can to see what is going to happen (locally).”
Russ said the potential loss of the Grenada railroad could also have an ancillary impact on Southwest Mississippi.
The absence of the Grenada railroad would eliminate an alternate route north of Canton for customers using the CN railway that connects to Natchez Railway in Brookhaven, Russ said.
Russ said an alternate route allows railroad commerce to continue in the event of an emergency or temporary railroad shutdown.
Adams County Board of Supervisors President Darryl Grennell said he hopes the owners of Natchez Railway don’t follow suit of the abandonment proceedings in Grenada.
“The railroad authority was put in place so (the authority) would be prepared to move in the direction of acquiring the rail line if something like (what might happen in Grenada) was to happen in our area,” Grennell said.
“(Losing the railroad) would be devastating to the area.”
Bland echoed Grennell’s urgency to use the authority in some capacity — whether it be purchasing it or some another option — to keep to the railroad in town.
“We’re going to try to get something resolved on this because we’re not going to lose any industry or any jobs, bottom line,” Bland said.
Anyone interested in buying a railroad before it was scrapped would have only between 90 to 100 days following public notice to petition abandonment to take action through the U.S. Surface Transportation Board.