Railway Age has not one but two Honorable Mentions for our 2021 Short Line and Regional Railroads of the Year awards: the Grenada Railroad (GRYR), nominated by President and CEO Barbara Wilson (one of our Women in Rail judges); and the Belpre Industrial Parkersburg Railroad (BIPR), nominated by several customers. Here are their stories, as submitted to Railway Age.
In November 2011, the Grenada Railway was headed toward total abandonment. This Class III, once part of the longest railroad in the world, was going to be forgotten. It would take a tremendous effort from members of the community to change the railway’s fate. Known as Grenada Railroad (GRYR) today, the track has been revitalized with public and private investment and is once again a cornerstone of the Mississippi economy.
Turning the clock back to 1851, then-prairie lawyer Abraham Lincoln is in Springfield, Ill., lobbying for the construction of the Illinois Central Railroad (IC). A land grant had been approved in the late 1840s by the federal government to establish a rail line that connected Mississippi to Chicago; but this decision was not unanimous, and Lincoln would have to defend the railroad against legal and political opposition. IC was ultimately completed in 1856. At the time, IC was the longest railroad in the world. It would go on to spur the growth of the midwestern economy and allow for rapid travel to and from emerging cities in the U.S.
IC was sold to CN in 1998. In 2009, CN sold a 200-mile segment of the track connecting Southaven to Canton, Miss., to A&K Materials, creating the short line Grenada Railway. Fast-forward to 2011: Upon hearing news of an abandonment plan, a coalition of community members, economic developers and local legislators spearheaded by Grenada economic developer Pablo Diaz, former railroad employee Larry Hart and local attorney Walter Brown formed the North Central Mississippi Regional Railroad Authority (NCMRRA). In 2015, the NCMRRA obtained state funding to purchase the Grenada Railway. The NCMRRA chose Iowa Pacific Holdings (IPH) as operating partner, but IPH did not have the capital needed to adequately invest in track and bridge repairs.
In mid-2018, RailUSA acquired Grenada Railway from IPH and began operating the line as Grenada Railroad. RailUSA started to unlock value in the line by deploying management and capital. The business goals were clear: Improve the service frequency and reliability by upgrading all 200 miles of track to Class II and 286,000-pound GRL capacity. The first project was reopening an abandoned 81 miles and the CN interchange in Canton. RailUSA committed the matching funds for an FRA FASTLANE grant awarded to GRYR for this project. Work began in late 2018, and the Canton interchange at the south end was reopened in December 2019, allowing traffic to flow across the entire line.
Agridyne began shipping by rail again, and long-time customer Hankins’ Lumber built a second sawmill on the southern end to expand business in 2021. GRYR was awarded a $6.2 million FRA CRISI grant in 2020 to repair 90 miles of track and 36 bridges on the northern portion of the line from Grenada to Southhaven. RailUSA committed the matching funds for the project. That work is expected to be completed in mid-2022, and for the first time since becoming a short line, the entire railroad will be able to handle 286 GRL traffic. Due to these upgrades, Biewer Lumber is investing $130 million in the construction of a new sawmill in Winona, creating 150 new jobs in rural Mississippi and adding more than 1,000 additional carloads of freight per year to GRYR. Since RailUSA acquired the line in August 2018, freight traffic has doubled, investment has been made by numerous shippers including Hankins and Biewer, and the economy of north central Mississippi has benefitted from new jobs and economic stimulus due to the rebirth of GRYR. The short line now interchanges more than 11,000 carloads per year and is actively working to bring more customers online.
BELPRE INDUSTRIAL PARKERSBURG RAILROAD
Several customers submitted nominations for this 48-mile Class III, whose motto is “Proudly serving the Ohio River Metals, Plastics and Petrochemicals Corridor.” BIPR interchanges with CSX in Parkersburg, W.Va. Here is a sampling of nominations:
Jesse C. Roush, Southeastern Ohio Port Authority Executive Director: “BIPR assumed operation of CSX lines in Washington County, Ohio, and Wood County, W.Va., early last year. Since then, they have grown traffic 50%-plus across their main customers, made significant and much needed line upgrades and expansions, and did so without a single reportable injury.
“Even before the agreement with CSX was complete, BIPR Chairman and CEO Casey Cathcart was actively consulting with local development groups to explore growth opportunities in the region. Because of Casey’s proactive approach to development, our organization was able to partner with BIPR to acquire the largest brownfield site in our county, a 165-acre portion of the former American Electric Power Muskingum River Plant in Beverly, Ohio. Without the BIPR’s partnership, we never could have completed the acquisition, arguably the most important real estate transaction we’ve undertaken in our history as the lead development agency for the county.
“I’ve spoken with most of the leadership at our major industrial manufacturing groups—all rail users—and everyone is quick to praise BIPR for exceptional customer service. In the case of one business, they were able to add 200 full-time employees because of the increase in rail traffic the BIPR is providing. BIRP has saved them money and offered operational advantages due to changes in the quality of service being provided. It would be hard to imagine a greater turnaround situation than the one the BIPR has brought to the former CSX lines in our county. BIPR’s presence in Washington County has been the biggest positive development since many of our anchor industrial facilities were built in the late ’60s.”
Todd M. Atkinson, DuPont: “BIPR has brought life back to the rust belt of eastern Ohio and western West Virginia on former CSX (B&O) lines. From day one, the railroad has been customer oriented, providing excellent customer service tailored to individual needs, with excellent reliability. The BIPR has also been safe in serving its customers. The railroad has worked injury free from day one.
“In its first year, BIPR increased traffic 50% for its main customers. The railroad has done many upgrades to its physical plant. This will ensure better customer service and safety for the future. BIPR has also been working with local economic development groups to boost business and the local economy.”
Casey Cathcart says that “since commencing operations, BIPR has had zero reportable injuries, and during its first 12 months, increased total revenue movements 84% vs. the prior three-year average. BIPR has converted several barge and truck movements to rail for existing customers (coal, residual fuel, asphalt); initiated new product movements for existing customers (ferroalloys, carbon, plastics); added three new storage-in-transit (SIT) customers supporting regional industry; and invested more than $2 million into equipment, rail refurbishment and upgrades, and new sidings.
“BIPR upgraded 21 miles from Excepted Track to FRA Class 2, built a 3,500-foot siding, installed more than 3,000 ties, and built a 3,600-foot fence around its main yard to protect the public. The railroad partnered with the Southeastern Ohio Port Authority on a joint venture acquisition of a 165-acre, rail-ready brownfield parcel for redevelopment. The former coal power plant will now house a new methanol production facility and possibly a clean fuels production facility; additional acreage is available for warehousing and other industrial development. A local customer was able to rehire nearly 200 furloughed employees and increase production due to BIPR’s reliable and consistent service.”