By James Neal, Staff Writer
Enid News and Eagle
FAIRMONT, Okla. —
A stretch of the region’s railroad infrastructure once owned by Oklahoma Department of Transportation is being scrapped by a private company.
The former BNSF Railway line stretching between Fairmont and Guthrie was sold by ODOT in 2010 and now is being scrapped, a move critics claim cuts off a direct line between Enid and Oklahoma City and weakens the state’s transportation infrastructure.
ODOT spokesman Cole Hackett said ODOT purchased the 42 miles of railroad track between Fairmont and Guthrie in 1998 for $2.6 million.
Hackett said ODOT “purchased the track at the request of local entities so they could rehabilitate the track and reinstate freight service and excursion trains.”
Hackett said the request in 1998 involved the Logan County Historical Trust Authority and other private entities that wanted to preserve the rail line.
“Rehabilitation funds never materialized and new operators could not be secured,” Hackett said in an email to the News & Eagle. “Areas of the track and bridges deteriorated, costing ODOT $200,000 a year in maintenance costs. With no proposals on the table, ODOT sold the track for approximately $2.6 million to a private entity, Montoff Corporation, in 2009-2010.”
Records from the U.S. Department of Transportation Surface Transportation Board show Montoff Transportation Co. LLC, a Delaware registered LLC based in Seattle, acquired the Fairmont-Guthrie line in March 2010.
The 2010 acquisition exemption filed with DOT stated “Montoff, ODOT and BNSF have now reached an agreement that would return the line to active rail service.”
“Montoff states that it intends to reactivate rail service,” the filing continued, “but that this cannot be done until necessary track and bridge rehabilitation work is completed.”
Plans to rehabilitate the rail line and reinstate rail traffic never came to fruition, and Montoff notified DOT in a July letter “it was not reactivating the line nor seeking to exercise its rights to reactivate rail service.”
A provision allowing BNSF to reassume authority of the line if it was abandoned went back into effect, but BNSF also notified DOT it officially was abandoning the line.
Montoff subsequently sold its interest in the rail line to Tie Yard of Omaha, a Nebraska company that specializes in scrapping abandoned rail lines.
Tie Yard of Omaha officials did not respond to requests for comment.
The company’s website notes its Omaha Track Materials division has “mobile crews located throughout the country available to remove abandoned tracks,” and invites customers to “Turn those unused tracks into extra cash.”
It is unclear what timeline Tie Yard of Omaha has for the track removal, but work already has begun in Logan County. Officials in Crescent stated the portion of the line running through their community already has been removed.
Advocates for rail transport point to the demise of the Fairmont-Guthrie line as another example of lost infrastructure and lost opportunities.
“As long as you have rail lines, even if they’re low traffic density lines, you have the prospect there for some significant savings on wear and tear on your public road systems,” said Tom Elmore, executive director of the Oklahoma City-based nonprofit North American Transportation Institute. “As long as that asset is there, the potential is there for its innovative use.”
Elmore said a single track rail line like the Fairmont-Guthrie line is capable of carrying as much freight as a 20-lane highway, “and you can do it on the rail line for about a quarter of the energy use.”
Where that freight capacity may be crucial in the future, Elmore said, is in the rail capacity to move crude oil, especially if projects like the Keystone XL aren’t completed or don’t meet demand.
“Considering all the wars that have broken out all along the proposed route of the Keystone Pipeline ... doesn’t it make sense for us to leave as many of our heavy transport assets intact as possible?”
Elmore said the removal of the rail line not only decreases freight capacity, but also eliminates the potential for the most direct commuter rail service between Enid and Oklahoma City. Two operational rail lines connect Enid and Oklahoma City, though they take a less-direct and longer route than the Fairmont line.
While the Fairmont line was sold and is being scrapped by private industry, Elmore pointed to ODOT as the cause of the line’s demise.
“What this really means, is it really points up the reality that, far from being a department of transportation, ODOT is a highways-only department,” Elmore said. “We know what ODOT’s up to, and it’s about highways and highways only.”
That statement came one day after ODOT completed the sale of 351 miles of rail line to Union Pacific, a transaction both ODOT and Union Pacific say helps preserve rail service through Oklahoma.
According to a Union Pacific press release, ODOT acquired the rail line 30 years ago when the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad Co. filed for bankruptcy, “potentially eliminating a critical rail connection that linked Texas and Kansas through Oklahoma.”
ODOT purchased the rail route, which runs through Enid, El Reno, Oklahoma City, Chickasha, Duncan and Lawton.
The railroad tracks were operated by Oklahoma-Kansas-Texas Railroad Co. through a 30-year-lease purchase agreement signed Nov. 1, 1982. Union Pacific later acquired the tracks through mergers, and completed payment to the state last year of $35 million plus accrued interest.
“This type of agreement was unique, but we felt it was critical that we preserve the rail corridors and work towards getting them back in the hands of private industry,” said Oklahoma Secretary of Transportation Gary Ridley. “The railroad tracks that were saved 30 years ago are a valuable part of the transportation network and are bustling with activity today.”
According to Union Pacific figures, the company operates 1,173 miles of track in Oklahoma and has invested more than $214 million in Oklahoma transportation infrastructure from 2007 to 2011.