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Rail Improvements Under Way

by Dave Wilkins
Capital Press, July 14, 2006

Upgrade will make for smoother, speedier ride

BURLEY, Idaho -- The Eastern Idaho Railroad is upgrading its tracks with the help of some federal tax credits.

Last week, crews yanked out old, battered railroad ties along a stretch of track west of Burley and replaced them with new ties.

Upgraded tracks will make for a smoother and speedier ride for freight moving along the regional rail system.

A variety of farm commodities, including sugar, potatoes, hay, grain and fertilizer are moved along the short-line railroad, which connects with the Union Pacific main line at several points.

EIRR is one of the few short-line railroads in the country that can move heavy-axle cars, but poor track conditions force trains to slow to a crawl in some places.

Upgrades to the system will help stabilize the track bed, allowing trains to travel at the maximum designated speeds.

The $1 million that the railroad spends on infrastructure improvements each year will now go farther, thanks to recently enacted tax credits, said Ed McKechnie, chief commercial officer for Kansas-based Watco Inc., parent company of the EIRR.

"This has allowed us to hire a few more people," McKechnie said July 5 during a track-side press conference with Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho.

Crapo helped push through tax credit legislation as a member of the Senate Finance Committee.

He is also pushing for the Senate to extend tax rules that allow for a 50 percent tax credit on reinvestment in rail facilities for regional railroads.

Getting Idaho products to market has been complicated in recent years by the merger of major railroads, disruptions caused by the Gulf Coast hurricanes and uncertainty surrounding the availability of trucks.

Now, with the help of rail tax credits, some of the smaller regional carriers are upgrading their deteriorating systems.

"We are finally seeing regional railroads being able to step up and bring these lines back, after decades of deferred maintenance in come cases, creating jobs while they improve transportation options," Crapo said.

Watco began Idaho operations in 1987. The company purchased the EIRR line from Union Pacific before expanding into the Magic Valley, Palouse and Upper Snake River regions of Idaho.

Watco also operates railcar repair facilities in Rupert and Idaho Falls.

Representatives from Amalgamated Sugar Co. and Scoular Co. also attended the press conference to attest to the importance of short-line railroads.

Amalgamated would never be able to get all of its sugar to market without regional rail service, said Bryan Whipple, sales and transportation manager for thecompany. "There aren't enough trucks in the world," he said.

Each rail car holds as much freight as four semi-trucks.

Without good short-line service, Scoular Co. wouldn't have located its new livestock feed unloading facility in Jerome, said Todd Strayer, local manager for the company that brings in 75-unit carloads of dry distillers grain from the Midwest.

There were other possibilities along the UP mainline, but they weren't as close to the heart of Idaho's dairy industry.

"Jerome is a much better location, centrally located to the dairies," Strayer said.

Dave Wilkins is based in Twin Falls, Idaho.
Rail Improvements Under Way
Capital Press, July 14, 2006

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