By John Howell
GRENADA – Four Yalobusha County men have agreed to serve on committees of the developing North Mississippi Rail Coalition.
Water Valley Mayor-elect Larry Hart will serve on the executive committee; Yalobusha Supervisor Tommy Vaughn, State Representative Tommy Reynolds and Yalobusha County Economic Development District Director “Coach” Bob Tyler will serve on the advisory committee.
They joined representatives from other counties also interested in continued rail service over the Grenada line currently owned by CN Railroad for a meeting June 3 in Grenada. And they joined the other people who attended – a sprinkling of county and city officials and economic developers from eight counties – to make unanimous a vote to endorse the sale of the line to Grenada Railway LLC and to partner with the new owner to make continued rail service along the route viable.
They were swayed by Michael J. Van Wagenen of Salt Lake City, Utah, a spokesman for Grenada Railway, LLC, the proposed buyer of the line that runs 175 miles between Memphis and Canton.
“Our intention is to operate these railroads,” Van Wagenen said, referring to the Canton-to-Memphis track to be purchased by Grenada Railway LLC and the 65-mile Brookhaven-to-Natchez track to be purchased by Natchez Railway LLC. “Our intention is to build these railroads up.
The June 3 meeting was a scaled-back version of a crowd concerned about a possible loss of the rail line that had overflowed the North Mississippi Fish Hatchery auditorium on May 26. The larger group on May 26 had agreed that a smaller committee could be more flexible in efforts to meet with prospective new owners to learn their plans for the line
Van Wagenen was the A and K Railroad Materials official whom Water Valley Mayor-elect Larry Hart had reached by phone prior to the May 26 meeting. A and K Railroad Materials was identified in the May 12 press release as a “non-carrier affiliate” of the CN line buyers. At the earlier meeting, Hart said that he had been favorably impressed during the conversation by the official who had told him “he would be glad to meet.”
That meeting came June 3.
“There’s a lot of traffic on this line, even though it’s not where it should be,” Van Wagenen said. “We’re excited about a new railroad,” he continued.
“Class I railroads like CN are interested in heavy (traffic). We have the ability to turn over some rocks,” the rail company spokesman continued. Larger railroad companies are “interested in large, unit trains,” Van Wagenen said.
A and K Railroad Materials is “not really a salvage company as much as a track company,” Van Wagenen continued, “ … the grocery store for the railroad industry. We have a ready store to upgrade these lines.”
Van Wagenen spent most of an hour answering questions and describing plans for the Grenada line.
“I think we’d be better off with them operating it than CN,” said Panola Partnership Chief Executive Officer Sonny Simmons.
“I’d like to make a motion that this group partner with the company,” Panola County Board of Supervisors President Gary Thompson said near the conclusion of the 90-minute meeting. The group unanimously adopted a resolution based on Thompson’s motion.
The coalition selected executive and advisory committees to allow further flexibility and input.
Executive committee members are Grenada Mayor Billy Collins, Hart, Simmons, Carroll County Chancery Clerk Sugar Mullins, Tate County Planning Director Steve Hale, Montgomery Partnership CEO Sue Stidham, Jim Flanagan of DeSoto County and Bruce Mayor Robert Oakley.
Advisory committee members include state representatives Warner McBride and Reynolds, Chip Morgan of the Delta Council, Vaughn and Tyler.
Other related railroad business discussed June 3 included:
• Van Wagenen’s unofficial announcement that Grenada would serve as the railroad’s headquarters. “Our crews will be based here in Grenada,” he said. He hopes to use Grenada’s depot for the headquarters, he said. Eight to 10 people would be hired, he added.
• An 11-mile spur in Yalobusha County connecting the main line to the Mississippi and Skuna Valley Railroad serving Calhoun County has not been “fully evaluated,” the railroad official said.
• “CN wants the deal to work; it’s to their benefit,” Van Wagenen said. Rail cars originating with Grenada Railway will enter CN’s lines at either end, he pointed out.
“About once a year they have a derailment over there in the Delta,” Hart said. “It’s important to them that the line stay in existence.”