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Railroad authority gears up for fight, if needed

BUDE — With one nearby railroad gone and another in north Mississippi fighting for its life, Southwest Mississippi leaders vowed Wednesday not to become a community with no railroad access.

Approximately 20 people attended a meeting of the Southwest Mississippi Regional Railroad Authority.

The authority was created earlier this year with cooperation from Adams, Franklin and Lincoln counties to be a backstop of protection for the future of the 66-mile railroad line that links the Natchez to connecting rail lines in Brookhaven.

The railroad’s future has been a source of worry since Canadian National sold it to a newly formed company, Natchez Railway LLC. The new owners have ties to a railroad salvage company, A&K Railroad Materials.

Regional railroad users began crying foul as rates on the Natchez Railway LLC line increased shortly after the May 2009 sale.

In July 2009, the rate for moving a single railcar from Natchez to Brookhaven before moving to other parts of the CN rail system was $610.

Today the published rate is $3,000, or more than $45 per mile.

By comparison, a similar sized short line railroad in Texas, the Blacklands Railroad, charges $1,000 for a 65.6-mile trip or $15.24 per mile.

Blacklands recently was named the 2011 short line railroad of the year by Railway Age magazine.

Last month the owners of Natchez Railway filed abandonment paperwork on a longer stretch of railroad they own in Grenada. The line purchased from CN at the same time as the Natchez-Brookhaven line.

“The people up there are scrambling around,” said Natchez attorney Walter Brown who has served as an advisor to the SWMRRA. “This is a statewide problem. If you look at the places you have short lines, everybody knows clearly that these guys could be on the chopping block, too.”

In addition to the ongoing abandonment procedures on the Grenada line, a rail line connecting Gloster to Zachary, La., was abandoned and partially scrapped earlier this year. Ownership of the Gloster line is also affiliated with the Natchez and Grenada lines and A&K Railroad Materials.

“It’s a national phenomenon, but it’s critical in rural states like Mississippi,” Brown said.

SWMRRA chairman Dan Bland bluntly said what many in the room seemed to be feeling regarding the current railroad owners.

“They don’t care about us,” he said. “At our first meeting, we said we’re going to get this railroad bought. It’s not time to fight yet, but it’s time to get ready.”

Previously, Chandler Russ, executive director of Natchez Inc. — Natchez and Adams County’s economic development engine — said the railroad authority may be able to purchase the railroad outright and that the group planned to consider seeking a loan from the federal Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing Program.

“We’re keeping all of our options open, including the possible purchase,” Brown said.