The Vermont Railway (VTR) and South Kansas and Oklahoma Railroad (SKOL) accepted Railway Age’s 2022 Short Line & Regional Railroads of the Year Awards at the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association (ASLRRA) Annual Conference & Exhibition in St. Louis, Mo., on May 2.
This year’s honorees leveraged public-private partnerships and teamwork to repair aging infrastructure and better serve customers.
Short Line of the Year VTR—part of the Vermont Rail System—embarked on a main line tunnel reconstruction project in 2019, along with the state of Vermont, the town of Middlebury, New England Central Railroad, and teams of designers and contractors.
The two Middlebury tunnels, built in the 1920s, not only provided access over the railroad tracks and a 20-foot-deep rail corridor, but also ran through and tied together the historic business district. However, they had become structurally deficient.
The project put the main line out of service for 10 weeks during construction, which included severing and rebuilding 3,500 linear feet of railroad track, crossties and ballast; excavating tens of thousands of cubic yards of soil and bedrock; constructing a new drainage system; assembling 422 individual pieces of precast concrete; and reconstructing Main Street and Merchants Row. For nearly a year prior to shutdown, VTR had to adjust its train operations to accommodate tight 20-hour work windows. To guarantee rail customers uninterrupted service—a priority—all rail traffic through Middlebury was diverted onto a New England Central Railroad route.
“Thanks to years of planning and strong communication—and despite the pandemic—there were no customer complaints,” Railway Age Executive Editor Marybeth Luczak said during the awards presentation.
While work continued until spring 2021, the rail line through Middlebury officially reopened on Sept. 18, 2020.
Vermont Rail System Director of Marketing Perry Martel and Manager, Marketing and Sales Sean Harper accepted the award on behalf of VTR.
Customers of Regional of the Year SKOL—part of the Watco family—were in dire need of increasing their carload weights to the industry standard 286K. So the Class II sought a CRISI Program grant, and in 2020, was awarded one: $27 million to upgrade track, and repair bridges and crossings. The project, valued at $41 million with matches from SKOL and from the states of Kansas and Oklahoma, will bring 80% of the railroad up to standards. Upon completion later this year, train speeds are expected to increase from 10 mph to 25 mph on much of the upgraded track.
Due in part to these improvements, a Watco customer has decided to build a $350 million soybean crushing facility along the line, which will add approximately 7,500 annual carloads. To handle this new traffic, SKOL is projected to spend another $46 million to upgrade the remainder of the railroad to 286K.
“Customer-focused, SKOL teamed with BNSF in 2020 to provide unit train service for a fertilizer customer,” Luczak said. “Only weeks after it started, a fire damaged a 505-foot-long wooden trestle bridge in southeastern Kansas. The regional again partnered with BNSF, and within days, had an agreement in place to keep cars moving. And the bridge repair, originally estimated to take 30 days, took only 16.”
SKOL General Manager Jerry Waun accepted the award.