JIM HIGH: Pursue an affordable rail solution for Tupelo now

By Jim High

So what do we do now that MDOT has finally submitted, after six long years, its final report on the Tupelo Railroad Study? Last week I sat through the meeting where the results were presented to the general public – and learned nothing new. It just confirmed that a complete study was not done, probably because without constant input from knowledgeable people in Tupelo, MDOT never really understood the problems.
Now that the study is complete it will be put on the shelf never to be seen again. It proposes elevating the tracks of the BNSF Railroad all the way through Tupelo at a cost of some $385 million. MDOT claims it is also the cheapest option of all that were considered, but how would we know since all the other options were rejected before any cost estimates for them were made?
In the case of the option that I proposed of running the new route for the railroad from Belden to the southeast of Tupelo using the route of Highways 78 and 45, with the tracks running on the north side of Highway 78, and then elevating them on a trestle as they head south on Highway 45, this idea was rejected because MDOT, BNSF, and the Natchez Trace Parkway would not agree to share certain right-of-way, and MDOT was not able to conceive how simple this plan would be if all parties would cooperate.
But the most important factor facing Tupelo now that the study is complete is that no money is available to do anything. In the six years since this study was started the country’s attitude toward spending and government assistance with needed infrastructure projects has greatly changed. Actually if the money were to magically become available, I would endorse the MDOT plan to elevate the tracks through Tupelo. I say this because we must do something to improve the problems caused by an ever increasing number of trains. The study says that in 15 short years the present 21 to 24 trains per day could rise to 35 to 40 per day. And this says nothing about the delays caused by switching at Crosstown.
The money is not available, and will not be available anytime in the near future, I’m afraid. We cannot just sit and do nothing. So here’s Plan B, which is doable, well within the ability of Tupelo to finance, and would greatly improve the situation for the foreseeable future.
First there is a simple, inexpensive quick fix for the switching problems. Install a new switch at the east end of the current switch yard and have all switching happen from that direction which will not constantly block Crosstown. Yes, Church, Green and Spring Streets will be blocked as Crosstown has been, but the improvement should be obvious to everyone.
Then let’s speed the trains up from their current speed of 20 mph to 40 mph. The city of Tupelo controls the speed limit of the trains passing through our city. This would cut the time we wait for them in half. To do this the track through Tupelo will have to be rebuilt in spots, especially where it crosses the other railroad, because it cannot cross in a curve. Then we can install crossing guards at all crossings within the city for safety reasons, and to make possible the application for and approval of a “Quiet Zone” within the city to silence the horns. A 50 percent reduction in wait times, better safety, less noise and economically feasible, seems reasonable to me, while we continue looking for that $385 million.
Jim High is a longtime civic activist, lifetime Tupelo resident and twice served as chairman of the Community Development Foundation. Contact him at highjim@gmail.com or write to him at P.0. Box 467, Tupelo, MS 38802.