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Archive for Monday, December 22, 2003

Officials say short-line rail cutbacks could be costly

December 22, 2003

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— Cutbacks in rural rail transportation could increase the cost of Kansas wheat as well as maintenance costs for roads, some officials warn.

About 335 miles of railway in Kansas, most of it owned by short-line railroads, was abandoned in 2001, said Steven Bittel, executive director of the Kansas Rural Development Council. And the share of grain shipped by truck from Kansas elevators increased from 37 percent in 1990 to 47 percent in 2000.

Bittel said that if trucks carried all grain, the upkeep of state roads would cost an additional $57.8 million per year based on the wear and tear of increased truck traffic.

Ron Suppes, commissioner of the Kansas Wheat Commission and a member of the Scott Co-op Assn. in Scott City, said that without competition from short-line railways, trucking firms would raise the price to haul grain, increasing the cost of Kansas wheat relative to foreign growers.

Short-line railway, controlled by smaller firms, connects rural areas with nationwide Class 1 systems operated by such larger railroads as Burlington Northern Santa Fe and Union Pacific.

Typically, grain hauled by a short-line carrier passes its load on to a Class 1 carrier for transport to national distribution points.

"We definitely want to see short-line railway stay," Bittel said. "We want to do everything possible to keep this track there."

Members of the Rural Development Council are trying to generate public interest in the issue.

"We're not saying there's no place for trucks," said Loren Medley, chairman of the group. "There is a place for trucks. There is a place for short-line railroads. There is a place for Class 1 railroads. But there has to be a collaborative effort."

Without short-line service, some farmers would probably stop using their local grain elevators, said Gary Janssen, another Scott Co-op Assn. member. Instead, they would haul the grain by truck to the nearest Class 1 drop-off point.

Short-line service also is threatened by the increased use of larger-capacity cars by Class 1 railroads. Upgrading their track to accommodate the larger loads would be a major expense for the short lines.

Bittel said larger farms also were using trucks more and Class 1 railroads were increasingly using loaders compatible only with trucks.

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