Local railway system receives support with state, federal grants; new operator

From the Wilbur Register

This article was originally published on Jan. 17 in the Wilbur Register.

 

Our area’s portion of the Palouse River and Coulee City (PCC) Railway System recently received a shot in the arm, both financially and administratively, with state and federal grants and new operators. HighLine Grain Growers, Inc. led the way for these improvements, with long-range member interests in mind.

Railroad travel may seem quaint and old-fashioned for personal trips, but for moving freight and agricultural commodities, it is the preferred method in this region. It means fewer semi-trucks on the highways and keeps transportation costs lower for area farmers. HighLine Grain Growers, Inc. merged several local grain companies who were likewise committed to rail transport and began investing time and money into the CW Branch of the PCC Railway system, a 108-mile section of the railroad that goes from Cheney to Coulee City, and the Geiger Spur, a six-mile section located near Spokane.

According to HighLine’s website, the company’s main purpose and goal is to provide the most efficient and cost-effective method of transporting their members’ goods. To this end, and as part of their merger from five companies into one, “Highline Grain was formed to act upon these goals and plans were formulated [in July 2013] to construct a 2,000,000 bushel 110-car rail loading and unloading elevator at Four Lakes, WA.”

In their continued efforts to improve product transport, HighLine worked to secure not one, but two major infrastructure improvement grants. The USDOT Build Grant (replacing the old TIGER Grant — a targeted grant system aimed at supporting our national infrastructure) was approved and will put $4.35 million into the PCC Railway System, primarily to improve safety and efficiency. The awaiting-final-approval State-funded FRAP Grant will add an additional $780,000 to the same railway for much-needed infrastructure improvements. “Our goal is to move Eastern Washington grain products competitively and safely,” said Paul Katovich, general manager of HighLine Grain Growers, Inc.

After a WSDOT Request for Proposals (RFP) selection process, with assistance and advice from HighLine Grain Growers, Inc., Washington Eastern Railroad (WERR), owned by The Western Group, will now manage and operate the CW Branch of the Palouse River and Coulee City Railroad (owned by WSDOT) and the Geiger Spur Branch (owned by Spokane County). “This is a significant event for our region,” said Paul Katovich. “We’re excited to have them here.”

WERR began railroad operations on Nov. 5, 2018. In discussing the transition between railway operators, Katovich said, “It was as smooth as it could possibly be and exceeded my very high expectations. They did a fantastic job accomplishing a tall order.”

The Western Group’s successful operation of five other freight railroads across the country was one of the primary reasons they were chosen to take over operation of the CW Branch. They also operate Arizona Central Railroad, Cimarron Valley Railroad, Oregon Eastern Railroad, Texas & Eastern Railroad and Southwestern Railroad.

In addition to their operations experience, HighLine liked that the Western Group owns Western Railroad Builders, a railroad inspection and construction company. This allows them to conduct railroad maintenance and repairs in a timely and cost-effective manner. They are big enough to handle the overhead cost of railroad maintenance, but small enough that the CW Branch won’t be just another number, explained Katovich.

HighLine especially appreciated The Western Group’s focus on reliable service with a long-term outlook. This matches their own company’s focus on meeting members’ needs, not just for today’s farmer, but for future generations of farmers. That perspective was their original reason for merging the five companies into one.

“We are stewards of this cooperative platform, focused on the multi-generational farm families that created these companies in the first place,” said Katovich.

Katovich explained how the previous railroad operators were not making decisions based on long-term solubility. “It’s not an uncommon story,” he said. Previous owners of the CW Branch Line, driven primarily by motives of profitability rather than sustainability, led to over 30 years of deferred maintenance on the system. It was not an attitude that fit the HighLine model of providing stable, competitive freight transport for lifetimes. An extended effort to recruit the State of Washington to purchase and support the CW Branch leads us to where we are today.

To efficiently meet the demands of moving locally produced grain, two modes of freight transport must be available in an area this far from the river: truck to barge and railroads.

“Survival of the line was imperative,” said Katovich. “Without this choice, the cost of transportation goes up overnight.”

HighLine worked with WSDOT and others on the RFP to select the best operator and secured the infrastructure funding from state and federal grants to achieve their promise to members. They are proud to be part of the railroad success story of the CW Branch and Geiger Spur, staving off deterioration of our local railroad system. As early as this summer, locals could see track work underway, particularly between Creston and Reardan.