Train traffic in Mississippi has increased about 30 percent since 1994, but the majority of the increase has been in the central and south regions and not the north where the bulk of the state’s manufacturing plants are located.
That’s still not good news for motorists in Tupelo, which is notorious for traffic delays because of two rail lines that cross the city with no way to detour traffic around them. Officials say, while the number of trains hasn’t increased dramatically in the area, the trains are getting longer and efforts to relocate the switching yards near the city’s downtown area have come up empty for the past two years.
Officials said the only way to get federal or state funds to move the yards may be to team up with other cities experiencing the same problems.
While train delays for motorists are common in Tupelo, drivers can take some comfort in knowing that the actual number of trains passing through the city has only increased by two trains a day since 1994, according to the state Department of Transportation.
“You’ve had about a 10 percent increase on the Burlington Northern,” said Newton McCormick, state rail engineer. “They had 22 trains (a day) and now they’ve got 24, and that increase was actually in the last year and a half.”
The other rail line through Tupelo is owned by the Kansas City Southern Railroad, which recorded no increase in the number of trains since 1994. McCormick said the number has remained steady at six a day. But Joe Burns, local transportation assistant for the KSC, said the number was actually three – one during the day and two at night.
Local Burlington Northern officials referred all questions to the company’s Ft. Worth, Texas, offices, where spokesman Jim Fabourin said the railroad didn’t keep figures on traffic by state.
“Overall, for the industry and for our company, traffic has increased sharply over the last several years to its highest level, if not in history, at least since World War I,” Fabourin said.
Increases in the central and southern regions of Mississippi are actually closer to the 30 percent statewide figure quoted by the DOT, McCormick said. He attributed those increases to more intermodal train traffic in those regions.
“Those are the piggybacked or double-stacked containers that can go on a truck or a train,” McCormick said of intermodal transport.
He said one of the reasons why intermodal train traffic has not increased in the northern part of the state is that Burlington Northern, the region’s largest carrier, has a large depot and switching yard in Memphis.
“I think eventually a lot of the furniture companies that have been hauling by truck will switch to rail,” McCormick said. “The reason they’re not doing it now is because there’s no (intermodal) depot. They’re trucking it to Memphis and putting it on a train.”
He said he expects the railroads to begin building more depots where intermodal containers can be loaded. The Kansas City Southern is planning one for Jackson.
“The reason they haven’t done it (in Tupelo) is because the railroads don’t want to do it,” McCormick said. “It costs money. They’ve got one in Memphis, so why put one in Tupelo?”
Harry Martin, president of the Community Development Foundation in Tupelo, said he believes rail usage is up in the area, although the number of trains hasn’t increased substantially.
“They’re longer than they have been,” Martin said of the trains. “I think freight is up on trains, and it’s up very much by truck. I think the volume of freight is going to continue to be greater in Northeast Mississippi, both by train and by truck.”
Roger Bland, executive vice president of Action Industries, one of the largest furniture manufacturers in the area, said his company ships about 5 percent of its goods by rail and would ship more if it had better access to Burlington Northern’s system. He said the firm has trucked goods to Memphis to put them on a train.
“Our greatest need is to the West Coast, getting it out there to be distributed,” Bland said. “It is costly to truck it across the country.”
Joe Burns of the Kansas City Southern office in Tupelo said most of what his company hauls in the area is corn, steel and paper with some hazardous materials in the form of chemicals for local industries. KCS trains passing through the area range from 50 to 150 cars.
McCormick said most of what Burlington Northern hauls through the area is coal bound for power plants to the east and to the south. An average number of cars per train was not available.
Traffic through Northeast Mississippi on the KCS line originates primarily in Dallas or Atlanta, McCormick said, while most of the Burlington Northern traffic comes out of Memphis.
Both Kansas City Southern and Burlington Northern operate switching yards in Tupelo, but it is the Burlington Northern yard near the city’s Crosstown intersection that causes the greatest automobile traffic delays. Kansas City Southern’s switching yard is located just north of the Eason Boulevard and Green Street intersection.
When Burlington Northern trains must stop and add cars in Tupelo, it often is necessary to block Crosstown, one of the city’s busiest intersections with an estimated 35,000 vehicles passing through each day. Crosstown is the intersection of Main Street and Gloster Street.
Burns said adding or removing cars is a simple process of uncoupling or coupling a new car to the train. The only rules for making up a train, he said, regard cars containing hazardous materials, which must be kept “four or five” cars behind the engine to protect the crew.
Tupelo has tried for decades to find a way to route traffic around Burlington Northern’s switching yard at Crosstown to no avail. The best solution, city officials contend, is to move the switching yard out near where the Kansas City Southern yard is located. A 1989 study put the estimated cost of doing that at $4.6 million.
So far, all the city has been able to come up with is an offer of $100,000 from the railroad itself.
“We have the plan, we have the need, we have the desire,” said Tupelo Mayor Jack Marshall. “We just don’t have the money.”
McCormick said the state hasn’t paid much attention to the problems associated with rail lines because they are privately owned, unlike state highways.
“(The Legislature) has never given the railroads anything,” said McCormick, who added that the state’s rail problems could be solved with a fraction of what the state is spending on the $1.6 billion four-lane highway program.
“We could create a better economic climate and at the same time do away with all our congestion for $120 million and fix most of our problems and not have to do it again,” he said.
Marshall said the key may be in getting all of the municipalities in the state with railroad problems to band together and lobby the Legislature for the funds.
“If we all came together and formulated a plan, I believe we could have success with that,” he said.