Northwoods Rail Commission hopes to keep area lines open
A commission made up of representatives from 19 counties across northern Wisconsin and upper Michigan are hoping to keep area rail lines active and in good repair.
“We started this commission for multiple reasons,” Oneida County Economic Development Coorporation executive director Roger Luce said. “First we were initially concerned about the abandonment of railroad. It is very easy for a railway to become part of the rail to trail program. We started this commission to keep an eye on that. Now for a railroad company to abandon a line of track, they need to alert us.”
The line of track the commission is specifically focused on is a stretch that runs through Rhinelander from Rusk County in the west to upper Michigan. A portion of that track is already been decommissioned which means the railroad company is not making needed repairs and the tracks are not fit for passage.
That part of the track runs west from Rhinelander through Forest County and already has had an impact on the local economy and businesses in that area.
“There are forestry operations that go on in that part,” Luce said. “Right now, the foresters have to haul their product a ways. It takes them two weeks to get their product from Forest County to the mills in central Wisconsin. So if you think about that, it takes two weeks to get somewhere I can drive in an hour in a half.”
Having the rail back up and running could mean faster and cheaper shipping to those mills by a faster train route that can also haul more product that by semi.
One train car is equal to 2 1/2 to 4 1/2 semi trailers, Luce said.
While it appears their is a need and a demand for the rail service in the area, Luce said it is the nature of the railroad business and how each company is set up that is the reason the tracks may be abandoned.
The rail in the area is owned by Canadian National, a Class A train company.
Class A train companies rely on large loads and full trains to earn their profit, Luce said. Their main concern is getting goods to their main lines and having large trains full of goods.
“Their business model does not work with smaller tracks like the ones we have in our area,” Luce said. “It doesn’t fit the way they do business.”
Luce said that is the second and what has been come the primary goal of the commission.
“If Canadian National decides to abandon these tracks, we have an option to get funds for 80 percent to purchase the tracks,” Luce said. “The other 20 percent would have to be paid for by the counties.”
But Luce said the commission is not interested in using public funds but would rather use a private short line company. The use of a short line company has proven to be profitable and a boon for the area in southern wisconsin where the Wisconsin Southern Company operates several miles of track like those in northern Wisconsin.
“The short rail model is based on making money one car at a time,” Luce said.
Luce used the example of a line that runs from Madison to Prairie Du Chen on the western border of the state.
“There was a business that wanted service in Prairie Du Chen and Wisconsin Southern built a line to that company at considerable cost, but other companies on that line wanted the service as well,” Luce said. “They started with that one car and then it grew to four, five, 10 cars.”
Luce said the short line track also attracted business to the areas served by the line.
Luce said the commission hopes something similar can happen in northern Wisconsin and upper Michigan.
“Ideally the area is best suited for a short line railroad,” Luce said. “It fits the model better than a Class A railroad.”
But for now, all eyes are on Canadian National and what they will do next.
“We hope that they sell the lines to a short line company,” Luce said. “But Canadian National has to be willing to do it. I love trails and I use trails but I think we have enough former railroads that are now trails. What we need is to keep these lines working.”