Wisconsin town buys track to save rail service

If a railroad decides to pull out of town, what can the residents do?

Buy the track.

All across the country many large railroads are abandoning service to small towns because they say it's not profitable.

The Chicago & Northwestern Railroad (CNW), which serves the largest industries in Ashland, Wis., declared in December 1980 its intention to abandon service to the northern Wisconsin community as well as the 120 miles of tracks that led there.

Thus, facing the prospect of no rail service, the managements of several industries thought they might have to shut down.

With some 400 jobs at stake, the companies had limited options. Switching from rail to trucking was out of the question, the companies declared, since they shipped such things as coal and heavy forest products.

Not only was there a threat to the existing industries, but prospects for future industrial growth looked grim, too.

Ashland Mayor Ed Wagner stepped into the breach. After a year of tough negotiations and rallying of local support, the mayor led the city (pop. 9,000) to become the first in the state to buy a piece of a railroad.

Ashland now owns about 31/2 miles of the abandoned track and has made a deal with the Soo Line railroad to serve the area.

A $478,000 project to rehabilitate the badly neglected tracks began June 1 and is scheduled for completion by the end of the summer.

The first plan for keeping the railroad alive, Mayor Wagner said, was shot down during an Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) abandonment hearing. The Soo Line testified it had no interest in buying the portion of the line the CNW didn't want.

Turning to the state's Department of Transportation, the mayor discovered that funds were available to help the city buy the tracks, once the ICC negotiated a price.

When the amounts were nailed down, the transportation department said it would supply $65,000, the full price of the land, but only about $100,000, or roughly 80 percent, of the cost of the tracks.

Mayor Wagner then turned for help to the five main businesses affected by the abandonment. Each company paid a share, based on the portion of the spur it used.

Ashland put in $10,000 for the portion of the line that serves the city directly.

After six months, a 40-page document was hammered out dealing with dozens of complex issues such as liability and upkeep.

''The city certainly did not want to get into the business of maintaining a railroad,'' Mayor Wagner said.

At one point, he said, the CNW wanted to sell back to Ashland the land the city had deeded to the railroad without charge in order to encourage new industrial development.

''One of the interesting things about an abandonment proceeding is that the railroad tries to demonstrate that its tracks are in such abysmal shape that it wouldn't be financially worth its while to go in and rehabilitate them,'' Mayor Wagner asserted.

''Then, after it proves its point and negotiations begin to buy the tracks, it becomes pure gold.''

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