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Natchez wants to keep its railroad

When the lone rail line servicing Natchez was sold two years ago, the intentions of the new owners were clear before the ink on the contract had dried.

The 66-mile stretch of rail connecting Natchez to Brookhaven was sold along with a 175 miles of rail leading to Grenada, in north Mississippi, in 2009 to a company with roots in the railroad salvage industry.

The new owners recently petitioned federal regulators to abandon a large stretch of the Grenada line.

The move, while not unexpected, hardened the determination of Southwest Mississippi leaders to not allow the local community’s railroad to go down without a fight.

Grenada appeared to be woefully unorganized ahead of the owner’s move to begin abandonment proceedings. Now they’ll be rushing to get organized and catch up.

Despite public assurances by the new owners that their intent was to operate the Natchez line, most people watching the facts knew all along it was just talk.

Rates and fees on the line skyrocketed after the ownership change. Those familiar with rail rates suggested that the owners were hoping to drive away business to help bolster their future argument that the line was not profitable, thus a candidate for abandonment.

Fortunately, the United States Surface Transportation Board regulates railroads and provides some avenues for stopping abandonment procedures.

Southwest Mississippi is in much better shape than Grenada. Our leaders wisely formed the Southwest Mississippi Regional Railroad Authority and appear to be gearing up for a fight, if it comes to that.

That we’re ahead of the curve should make citizens feel good. Knowing our region — from Natchez-Adams County through Franklin and Lincoln counties — has the collective resolve not to lose an opportunity for our industrial future is reassuring.

Interestingly, one avenue may be for the rail authority to step up and buy the railroad.

Doing that may seem extreme, but it’s not just local leaders who see the importance in rails to our country.

Billionaire investor Warren Buffett’s company purchased a large, national railroad company in late 2009 for $26 billion.

In an interview about why he purchased the railroad, Buffett gave some insight, useful for Southwest Mississippi to consider.

“I felt it was an opportunity to buy a business that is going to be around for 100 or 200 years that’s interwoven with the American economy,” he said.

“It is the most efficient way of moving goods in the country,” he said. “It’s the most environmentally friendly way of moving goods and both of those are going to be very important.

“It moves a ton of goods 470 miles on one gallon of diesel. A train replaces 280 trucks on the road. It emits far less into the atmosphere that’s damaging than trucking.

“I also know the railroads will be essential to the country,” Buffett said.

The Oracle of Omaha, as Buffett is sometimes called, made his billions by making smart investments and bold moves. That same logic might be smart for our region to consider as they face some very tough decisions ahead.

If our community does nothing, we have a great example of what will happen just to our north in Grenada.

If that track is abandoned and pulled up, it will almost certainly never return.

We cannot afford to have that happen here.

Kevin Cooper is publisher of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3539 or kevin.cooper@natchezdemocrat.com.