KALAMAZOO, Mich. -- Nearly 123 miles of track connecting Elkhart, Ind. and Grand Rapids, Mich., are being upgraded and soon will carry the boldly colored locomotives of the new Grand Elk Railroad.
Watco Transportation Services Inc. of Pittsburg, Kan., has leased the stretch from Norfolk Southern Railway and plans to take over the operation April 1. The Kansas company is investing $8.9 million in start-up capital to improve the track conditions, purchase maintenance equipment and buy 10 locomotives.
"I can't wait for this thing to start," said Rodney Gordon, general manager of the Grand Elk Railroad.
The new railroad short line created 58 new full-time jobs, for which Grand Elk had more than 3,000 applications. With the response indicative of current economic conditions, Grand Elk is not expecting much growth this year, Gordon said. However "beyond 2009, we believe there is a lot of opportunity for growth."
The line already serves 55 customers and Grand Elk will pick up those businesses. Annually, the track is projected to handle 22,000 carloads.
Initially the Grand Elk will make eight starts a day, hauling a variety of commodities including automotive parts, plastics, metals, forest products, aggregates and agricultural products.
Most of the rail cars will come from across the United States on the Norfolk Southern system, Gordon said. Then the Grand Elk will transport the cars along its track to the customers.
"Whatever they need is what we're going to do," Gordon said.
North American Pipe Co. in Bristol, Ind., is among the companies served by the Grand Elk. The manufacturer relies on the railroad to bring in carloads of raw resin which is blended into a plastic compound and used to make pipes, said Ed Foy, buyer for the Bristol plant.
"We'll be getting the same type of service that we've been getting from Norfolk Southern," he said. "We shouldn't see any difference in service. In fact, it could be better."
Better because short-line railroads typically are able to be more flexible in meeting customer needs. Whenever North American requires a carload of resin outside its normal delivery schedule, Foy explained, Grand Elk should be able transport the shipment.
Resin is the key to the Bristol plant's operation because without it, Foy said, the facility will shut down.
Ongoing improvements along the Grand Elk line are designed to get track speeds up to 25 mph from the current 10 mph. As a part of that project, 20,000 rail ties are being replaced between Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids, and a bridge is being rebuilt in Portage, Mich.
The Grand Elk marks the entrance into this region by Watco Companies Inc., parent of Watco Transportation Services. The Surface Transportation Board approved the lease agreement between Watco and Norfolk Southern in January. Grand Elk headquarters will be in Kalamazoo.