Rail line too important to trust motives

Published 12:00 am Sunday, July 18, 2010

My older brother was the coolest person in my young world, due in no small part to the fact that he had an electric train set.

We bonded over the little wire train tracks. My brother, Todd, was the owner, operator and chief engineer of “Cooper Railways,” which operated briefly from our family home back in the 1970s.

My role was mostly of “fetcher,” picking up parts that flew off during collisions and derailments.

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Trains are just cool. They’re just big hunks of iron and steel, loud and smoke spewing — at least the old ones.

But as a child their true importance was beyond my comprehension.

Today, however, the appreciation for what railroads can mean to a community is much more serious and much more important. They’re still massively cool, but they’re also vital for some types of business and industry.

The rumors surrounding the future of Natchez’s last remaining rail line — a 66-mile section of track leading to other rail connections in Brookhaven — have become particularly troublesome.

A newly formed company, Natchez Railway LLC, with strong ties to a railroad salvage firm, purchased the line a little over a year ago.

Suddenly, everyone in Southwest Mississippi is fearful of what can happen if the firm decides to abandon the line. Federal laws stipulate how this must be done, and while no easy process, it happens all the time, so it’s a real concern.

After a long period of not hearing much from the new company, last week they talked a little, coming out and assuring all that they have no intention of abandoning the line immediately, but clearly laying out a public case for its possible abandonment in the future.

It was good politics and, perhaps good business, too.

The former owners of the rail likely wouldn’t have sold it if they believed it had significant value as an operating line.

Obviously the line has value to the new owners in one form or fashion or they’d have never purchased it in the first place. Think about it.

Who would buy a business asset and not have a clear plan to get a return on their investment?

That plan could have included regular operating profits, outright sale of the business, selling off the pieces of the assets, local government subsidy or even an income tax benefit through the operating loss.

A plan for regular business profits supporting the line seems unlikely. Again, they would have known the exact revenue the line was making prior to the purchase.

Either way, it’s almost certain that the new owners have a plan — and likely a few options — for how to get a good return on their money.

Natchez Railway LLC Vice President Michael Van Wagenen said a number of interesting things last week.

He suggested the company has no formal plans to scrap or sell the railroad.

Of course many business decisions are made based on informal plans. Perhaps their plan is to simply shut the railroad down until salvage and land prices rise or, even better, convince locals to subsidize the business — directly or through tax breaks — until such can be done.

Van Wagenen said the company is open to suggestions and ideas for ways to make the railway more profitable.

That’s a great way to stifle complainers, flip the problem back to them to resolve.

Our business and community leaders need to approach this with a healthy dose of skepticism, especially when the plans don’t seem to make good business sense.

Keeping rail access to our community is too important to trust that an out-of-state company’s motives will be in perfect alignment to what is best for our area.

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