Short-line and regional railroads vital to U.P. economy

Michigan State Roundup

Published October 1, 1992  | October 1992 issue

Area industries are increasingly turning to small railroads for service in the geographically isolated and sparsely populated Upper Peninsula (U.P.).

When Pfizer Specialty Minerals Inc. reopened an idle limestone quarry near Gulliver in the U.P. last year, Wisconsin Central Ltd. modified the old electrically powered rail cars and repaired the tracks to haul limestone from the quarry to Port Inland on Lake Michigan.

Wisconsin Central, with over 2,000 miles of track in the Upper Midwest and Ontario, is one of several regional and short-line railroads operating in the U.P. Others include the Lake Superior and Ishpeming Railroad in Marquette and the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad, both of which depend largely on iron ore mines for their U.P. business.

These three railroads alone provide more than 400 jobs in the region. But it's not the jobs alone that make the railroads so valuable.

"The mining industry is the anchor business," says John Bradshaw, Wisconsin Central's vice president and general manager, "but the resulting regular year-round service provides the opening for other business opportunities."

This summer Mead Corp. in Escanaba signed a 12-year business partnership agreement with Wisconsin Central, which ships paper and raw materials for the company. In addition, the railroad began a four-year commitment to haul copper from the White Pine mine in the western U.P. to Chicago three times a week.

Wisconsin Central also recently upgraded its tracks on the international bridge between the U.P. and Canadian Sioux Ste. Marie to accommodate 100-ton capacity cars to give shippers more route alternatives. "We're continuing to explore opportunities in the U.P.," Bradshaw says.

The railroads aren't the only ones interested in increasing their business. When the state of Michigan decided to sell an abandoned rail line connecting the Keweenaw Peninsula to Baraga about 30 miles south of Houghton, the Houghton County Board responded.

Leading a citizens' effort to increase area rail service, the board's Railroad Committee wants to purchase the line and contract with a regional railroad to operate it.

Committee chairman Gerald Perreault says reopening the line would hold freight rates down and spur new timber business. "Everyone agrees we've got a lot of wood up here," Perreault says. But unless shipping costs can be held down, it doesn't pay for loggers to cut the lower quality timber, he says.

Perreault adds that the area's copper products industry would likely also benefit from the reopened rail line because of the high cost of trucking in heavy scrap materials from which copper is extracted.

Kathy Cobb