Watco customers served by three Midwest railroads will be seeing a change in service made possible from two grants that were awarded to the lines. The grants, combined with Watco’s match, total $61.4 million.
The infrastructure improvements will be made on the Kansas & Oklahoma Railroad (KO) and the South Kansas & Oklahoma Railroad (SKOL), which feeds traffic through Oklahoma to the Stillwater Central Railroad (SLWC). With the track upgrades, the lines will be able to accommodate the heavier 286,000-lb. cars that are now the industry standard, especially on the nation’s Class I railroads. Customers along the lines will see track speeds increase from 10 mph to 25 mph across much of the central region system. This will decrease the trip times of most trains by approximately 50 percent. Besides the ability to move customers’ products quicker, the upgrades could possibly reduce the size of the railcar fleet needed to accommodate their moves or increase the amount of product they can ship out of production.
“We’re excited to see the improvement our customers will experience in transit times throughout the entire Kansas and Oklahoma railroad network,” said Jimmy Patterson, senior vice president of sales. “The railcar movements in the region are so interconnected that our customers on all three railroads, the KO, SKOL, and Stillwater Central Railroad will benefit from this funding. Our customers played a key role in supporting us in the past and in the process of obtaining the funding.”
Watco’s first short line, the SKOL, began operations in 1987 and will undergo the largest portion of the upgrades through a $27 million Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements (CRISI) award. CRISI is a program of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration. The Oklahoma Department of Transportation is a match participant, and Watco is investing $12.1 million. The total investment is $40.6 million.
Of the 433-mile network, 239 miles will be upgraded, enabling the tracks to handle additional stress caused by transporting heavier railcars. With the completion of this project, 95 percent of the SKOL will be able to safely transport 286,000-lb. railcars.
Jerry Waun, SKOL general manager said, “The SKOL team is more excited about receiving the grant than anyone. The improvements are changes the team has wanted to see for a long time. They were just very expensive upgrades to take on.”
He added, “The improvements will alleviate frustrations our team members had in not being able to serve our customers in the most efficient manner. Being able to move at higher speeds, reducing trip times, and turning cars around quicker is a benefit to all parties involved.”
U.S. Senator Jerry Moran, R-Kan., assisted with the team’s efforts in obtaining the funding.
“Farmers and businesses that have made their homes in rural communities rely on rail transportation to move their products to markets around the state and country,” said Sen. Moran. “This grant will allow the South Kansas & Oklahoma Railroad to modernize their railways, increasing the speed of transportation and permitting heavier shipments to move across the region. I’m excited for the new economic opportunities this grant will afford our farmers and manufacturers in rural Kansas.”
With the track upgrades, including a proposed 140,000 new crossties, the SKOL will be able to operate at Class 2 levels safely. On the Tulsa Sub, for example, the SKOL is restricted today to running at 10 mph or less. The rail line averages 35-40 track-caused slow orders a month, and a fully loaded train of 100 railcars takes more than 26 hours and three crews to make the round trip between Owasso, Oklahoma, and Cherryvale, Kansas. Post-construction, the efficiency gains will reduce that same trip by half and slow orders by 75 percent.
Project lead Laura McNichol, Watco senior vice president, government and industry relations, had the privilege of sharing the exciting news personally with many of those who’d helped secure the funding.
“I had just finished a presentation at the Railroad General Managers Summit and saw I had a message on my cell phone. When I saw who it was from, I knew exactly what the call was about, and I stepped up in front of the team and played the message from Senator Moran, announcing that we had received the funds.
“It was the best feeling to see the faces of the team members who had worked so hard on getting the funding when they heard the news,” McNichol added. “This was a very robust application process, and I’d like to thank all of the customers and Watco team members who assisted. Without them, it would never have happened.”
It will take a few months to collect bids and get materials ordered, but Waun is expecting to see the work starting in late fall 2020.
As part of a separate infrastructure improvement initiative, the Kansas Department of Transportation (KDOT) asked the state’s short line railroads to submit projects that would help the state’s rail infrastructure reach the desired ability to handle 286,000-lb. cars. State-wide submissions for the $10 million Rail Service Improvement Fund (RSIF) initiative totaled more than $16 million, but after adjusting the match from 70/30 to 60/40, the state was able to fund more projects to get the lines up to the desired standards. The SKOL is receiving $6.4 million with a $2.4 million Watco match, and the KO was awarded $7.2 million from the state with a $2.7 million Watco match. The objective of the investment is to enhance track infrastructure to eliminate capacity inefficiencies and increase track speed from 10 mph to 25 mph in restricted areas. This will be achieved through upgrades to track structure and substructure such as rail, ties, ballast, surface, turnouts, and bridges.
Improvements will be made on portions of the SKOL in Kansas, from Elk Falls to Fredonia. A total of 42,895 ties will be replaced on the SKOL; 28,590 tons of ballast will be laid down; 12 crossings will be rehabbed; and six bridges upgraded.
On the KO, RSIF improvements will be made in Kansas on the 65-mile line running from Great Bend south to Wichita. The KO will replace 48,750 ties, lay down 32,500 tons of ballast, replace 20 crossings and repair five bridges.
Jason Danz, KO general manager, said, “We hope to be able to start work in May and are looking at approximately 90 days for completion. Of course, that’s dependent on many factors such as the weather, material availability, and contractor schedules. Our team is ready to go, though; they’re excited to begin moving at faster speeds and seeing quicker turnaround times for our customers.”
Besides boosting safety, these projects will improve and enhance trade opportunities and will have significant positive impacts on regional economic vitality, innovation, and performance while leveraging state and federal funds with private capital.