- Associated Press - Sunday, December 14, 2014

GREENVILLE, Miss. (AP) - In the first week of the new year, if all goes as scheduled, a mechanized gang of some 15 to 17 rail-riding machines overseen by a crew of 25 or so men will begin to systematically upgrade railroad ties and underlying ballast along a 7.5-mile stretch of the Columbus & Greenville Railway between Metcalfe and the Mississippi River.

The $698,500 upgrade - $559,000 of which is being paid for by a grant through the Mississippi Development Authority - is expected to begin Jan. 2.

The work will be undertaken by Atlas Railroad Construction LLC, said Jeff Watson, the vice president of engineering for Genesee & Wyoming Inc.’s Jacksonville, Florida-based Southern Region Railroads division, and is anticipated to take about two weeks.

Atlas’s crews work 15 days straight followed by six days off year-round.

Atlas was founded in 1954 and has been a wholly owned subsidiary of Genesee & Wyoming since the railroad holding company’s 2012 acquisition of short-run rival RailAmerica.

“The core of the (Port of Greenville-to-Metcalfe) project is replacement of crossties and switch timbers,” Watson said. “New ballast also will be installed and tamped under the ties to improve surface conditions of the track.”

Ballast is the heavy-grade gravel added to the so-called roadbed where the ties are secured

Moreover, he said, “several redundant or out-of-service turnouts will be removed.”

The capital upgrade won’t halt rail traffic entirely, Watson said: “There’s something we call a curfew, when we don’t move any rail traffic for 10 hours so the work can be done. And then it resumes.”

There are, in a typical mile of railroad in the United States, 3,200, 8-and-a-half-foot-long ties.

Additionally, rails are supported by switch timbers - longer ties, typically between nine-feet and 22-feet in length - to accommodate points along a track where rails veer off in other directions.

All told, the upgrade will entail replacing some 5,400 of the 7.5-mile stretch’s 24,000 ties.

The 5,400 ties slated for replacement have deteriorated since the line’s last upgrade, which was in 2008, and have been marked by a local crew in anticipation of the mechanized gang’s arrival, Watson said.

“We’re not replacing 100 percent of the crossties,” he said. “Our tie counts for replacement (during a full-scale upgrade) generally average 700 per mile,” or fewer than 25 percent of the total ties in a mile-long run. “If all 3,200 ties (in a mile-long section) had to be replaced, the line would be out of service well before that scenario occurred.”

As it is, “The lifespan of a tie is a widely debated topic, from eight years on the short end to 30 years on the long end,” Watson said.

The Port of Greenville-to-Metcalfe work kicks off a five-year upgrade of the existing Columbus & Greenville Railway’s track structure between its namesake cities.

“The focus in 2015 (will be) between Greenville and Indianola,” Watson said.

Typically, such capital upgrade projects are performed every five to eight years, he said, based on “the lifespan of rail and timber components (which vary) significantly based on factors such as train tonnage and speed.”

In the interim, “maintenance of the track structure and roadbed is ongoing and consistent,” Watson said.

“Maintenance (on the stretch between Greenville and Greenwood) is the responsibility of a roadmaster and his four-man crew, based in Greenville.”

Darien, Connecticut-based Genesee & Wyoming Inc. purchased the Columbus & Greenville Railway in 2008, which until 2001, ran 162 uninterrupted miles between the cities that gave it its name.

Today, the line runs from Greenville to Greenwood, where it connects with trains operated by the Montreal-based Canada National Railway Co., and from West Point east to Columbus.

The interim 89.5 miles of rail between Greenwood and West Point not in use remain intact, save for some illegal scavenging, and conceivably, if economic circumstances made doing so feasible, could be re-opened.

No such plans currently are in the works.

The C&G; also at various junctures connects to the Alabama & Gulf Coast Railway, BNSF, Canadian National, CSX Transportation and the Norfolk Southern.

The Columbus & Greenville Railway’s provenance dates to Jan. 5, 1878, when Harriet Blanton Theobald, known the Mother of Greenville, drove the first, symbolic spike to inaugurate the original Greenville, Columbus & Birmingham Railroad.

Today, the Columbus & Greenville between Greenville and Greenwood, the eastern terminus of its interrupted run, hauls product for such clients as 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.

That traffic, particularly pronounced during harvest season, contributes to the Genesee & Wyoming’s current sound fiscal footing.

Genesee & Wyoming Inc., which trades on the New York Stock Exchange, reported 2013 profit of $272 million on operating revenue of $1.6 billion, due in part to gains realized from its $1.39 billion purchase of RailAmerica in 2012, which added 45 railroads to the acquirer’s overall operations.

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Information from: Delta Democrat-Times, https://www.ddtonline.com

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