By Tom Bassing
GREENVILLE — Wielding the blunt end of 14-inch hatchet, Harriet Blanton Theobald, known by then as the Mother of Greenville, on Jan.
5, 1878, drove the first, symbolic spike to inaugurate the Greenville, Columbus & Birmingham Railroad.
A descendent of that railroad exists still today, providing an essential freight link between Greenville and its eastern terminus in Greenwood.
The Columbus & Greenville Railway in 2008 was purchased by Darien, Connecticut-based Genesee & Wyoming Inc., which operates 112 short-line and regional railroads on three continents.
The C&G, until 2001, ran 162 miles, traversing the state between its namesake cities.
Today, the rail line comprises two stretches, from Columbus to nearby West Point and from Greenville to Greenwood, where it connects — or interchanges, in railroad jargon — with trains operated by the Montreal-based Canada National Railway Co.
out of service
The 89.5 miles of rail between Greenwood and West Point remain intact, save for some illegal scavenging.
“I took it out of service in 2001,” said Roger Bell, who at the time was the president and chief executive officer of the Columbus & Greenville Railway.
He is now Genesee & Wyoming’s vice president of business development.
Out of service is not the same as abandoned, although both require regulatory approval.
The industry is overseen by the Federal Railroad Administration, an agency within the U.S. Department of Transportation, and the Surface Transportation Board, which in July 2007 officially issued a “discontinuance of service exemption” for the Greenwood-to-West Point stretch.
Yet, it has not been officially abandoned.
“The right-of-way has been preserved. The rails are still on the ground,” Bell said. “We’re Mississippi born and raised. We didn’t want to see the railroad abandoned.
“We’ve always thought, maybe we can find a way to bring it back on.”
He said proof of that desire is evident in that Genesee & Wyoming could have realized a one-time gain by scrapping it.
“I don’t know what the liquidity value of 92 miles of railway is, but the rails alone are worth millions,” he said.
Bell said the Genesee & Wyoming executives overseeing the Mississippi railway “are as committed today as they were when they bought the C&G.”
The Greenville-to-Greenwood run of the C&G counts among its clients Delta Oil Mill Co., Delta Western Grain Inc., Gavalon Fertilizer, Loveland Products Inc., Platte Chemical Co., Producers Rice Mill Inc., Protein Products Inc., Scott Petroleum Corp., Sims Metal Management Ltd., Targa Resources Corp., Terral River Service Inc. and USG Corp.
“Most of what we do is agricultural related,” Bell said. “We run like crazy during harvest season.”
Fell into disrepair
Bell began working for what at the time was known as the Columbus & Greenville Railroad in 1970, earning $350 a month.
Two years later, the Illinois Central Gulf Railroad, following the merger of the Illinois Central and the Gulf, Mobile and Ohio Railroad, bought the Columbus & Greenville.
But the Columbus & Greenville’s infrastructure fell into disrepair, and freight traffic accordingly fell.
“The Illinois Central Gulf didn’t want the C&G,” Bell said. “So a group of us in October 1975 managed to put a deal together and bought it back.”
They rebranded it as the Columbus & Greenville Railway. Reviving it proved a challenge.
“We always were barely able to keep our nose above water,” Bell said. “But we persevered.”
The company invested in infrastructure, marshaling its resources and purchasing equipment and steel in-house to rebuild the numerous bridges along the line.
“We pretty much created our own construction company in doing so,” he said.
Over time, the railway regained traffic.
Bell, in 1987, was named president and chief executive officer, positions he held until overseeing the railway’s sale to Genesee & Wyoming 38 years after he hired on with the Columbus & Greenville.
The Columbus & Greenville Railway is a wholly owned subsidiary of Genesee & Wyoming Inc., which declines to break out individual financial data for the 112 rail lines it operates.
“G&W … does not disclose revenue or carload information for its individual railroad companies,” company spokesman Michael William said in an email.
Combined, the company’s operations are profitable.
Genesee & Wyoming in 2013 reported $272 million net income on operating revenue of $1.6 billion, much of that driven by its $2 billion purchase of RailAmerica, which added 45 railroads to its portfolio.
The C&G is a so-called Class III, or short-line, railroad based on annual gross revenue less than $22 million.
Many of Genesee & Wyoming’s 112 rail lines are Class III railroads and serve niche markets.
Bell said the industry’s future is strong; G&W’s operating revenue and net income would seem to support his faith.
Changes in manufacturing philosophies, relying on frequent arrivals of needed parts rather than industries maintaining large stocks, factor in, as well.
“We no longer have any 50-cent or 60-cent diesel, and we’re not going to,” Bell said. “But it’s not just freight costs, it’s dependability. ‘Just in time’ has become the standard. Nobody anymore has six months of inventory on hand.”
Editor’s Note: The stretch of C&G line that is out of service includes the rail segment that runs through Webster County and Maben.
In April 2010, the Mississippi Legislature pledged about $15 million in matching funds to re-establish rail service between Greenwood and West Point, but the appropriation hinged on other funding being secured. Then-Gov. Haley Barbour signed the transportation bond package that included the appropriation into law.
The state agreed to provide loans and grants to offset the cost of rehabilitating that segment of line, but only if $65 million is contributed to the project via private dollars, and federal and local government funds.
The North Central Mississippi Regional Railroad Authority, which led the effort to renovate the line, applied for federal stimulus funding to help raise the estimated $100 million to restore the section taken out of service. At that time, the NCMRRA included representatives from Webster County and its board was initially chaired by Cynthia Wilson, then executive director of the since-dissolved Webster County Development Council.
No related action has been reported since May 2011, when Northern District Transportation Commission Mike Tagert said the reopening of the rail line had run into a snag.
Tagert, according to The Greenwood Commonwealth, told a civic group that, as of then, Genesee & Wyoming had not brought any funding proposal to the table. Although he said reopening the route has tremendous economic development potential, Tagert also said privately owned and operated railroads need private investments.