Is rail business being chased away?

Published 12:00 am Sunday, October 24, 2010

Economic development is rarely tangible, at least not to the public.

Usually, the moments when its physical evidence can be seen and touched are few.

Most of the time the competitive nature of business means much of this work is done in private.

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Thursday afternoon, in a small room at the Natchez Convention Center, economic development came to life as a tangible coalition formed to do what it takes to save jobs.

Approximately three-dozen business, government and community leaders met to discuss contingencies in case the owners of the lone rail line leading into Natchez ever shut down and dismantle it.

The tone in the room was serious and resolute. The area needs the rail to stay operational and affordable. The latter, all in the room seemed to agree, was no longer the case.

The 66-mile rail line extends from Natchez to Brookhaven where it connects with other primary lines.

A newly formed company, Natchez Railroad, LLC, purchased the line from Canadian National in 2009.

Shortly after the purchase Southwest Mississippi leaders had concerns that the new company — whose owners also own a railroad salvage company — ultimately plan to scrap the line.

A few months after the sale was consummated, Natchez Railway Vice President Michael Van Wagenen issued a statement that, in part, addressed those fears.

“Our intent in purchasing these lines from Canadian National is not to abandon these lines and salvage the rail and other materials, but rather we plan to do the exact opposite. … We intend to turn each line into a profitable and healthy railroad for many years to come.”

The words, at the time, were slightly reassuring, but the company’s actions since then appear anything but.

Attempts to discuss the future of the railroad and offer suggestions of how to grow the traffic volume with the company have seemed futile, local leaders say.

Rates have skyrocketed; tariffs for certain businesses have appeared though none existed previously.

On one hand, it’s easy to discount these things and say, “Hey, it’s the cost of doing business.” The railroad is, after all, theirs. “They bought it and can charge what they want for its services.”

True, but a railroad isn’t just a private business, it’s almost a like a utility or commerce highway running through our community.

Only when rates are put in perspective does it seem as if the company may be working hard to quietly chase away business and possibly ignore new business opportunities.

During Thursday’s discussions, Adams County Port Director Anthony Hauer mentioned that he’d recently reviewed a quotation for hauling a railcar of goods from a location in Arkansas to Natchez.

“The figure that jumps out and bites you is the figure from Brookhaven to Natchez,” he said.

The total estimate was approximately $4,800. Of that total $3,000 was the cost charged in the last 66 miles, Brookhaven over to Natchez.

By even the most nave of interpretations, that huge discrepancy in pricing between the miles from Natchez to Brookhaven and Brookhaven to any point in Arkansas seems a little fishy.

Existing customers are also feeling the price pinch and wondering: Do they simply want us all to go away?

“We’re about one rate increase away from being out of business,” said John Ward, plant manager of American Railcar Industries in Bude.

If that happens, that would mean a loss of approximately 100 jobs. No part of Southwest Mississippi can afford that so working together to prevent that is key.

Kevin Cooper is publisher of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3539 or