Nobody knows for sure.
After the Wisconsin Central railroad filed a “Notice of Intent To Discontinue Rail Service” legal notice last month, speculation about the future of the Withrow-to-Dresser railroad line ran wild among local government officials, businesses and railroad and trail enthusiasts in the St. Croix River Valley.
But railroad officials are notoriously tight-lipped about anything other than immediate safety issues. True to that form, Canadian National, the parent company of Wisconsin Central, isn’t saying much.
Larry Lloyd, a spokesman for Canadian National issued the following statement last week via email:
“CN strives to maintain safe and efficient rail infrastructure across its network. Continuous assessment of certain lines, such as the [Withrow-to-Dresser line], is essential to that task. Customer input is always a critical component of our assessment. Presently, we are continuing to work through that process.”
Lloyd declined to comment further in a follow-up call.
Michael Booth, a spokesman for the Washington D.C.-based Surface Transportation Board, the federal agency that regulates rail freight, said it is all but impossible to guess at the railroad’s intent until they decide to announce their plans.
“It certainly may not be what it looks like on its face,” Booth said.
As of March 19, Canadian National either hadn’t formally filed the action, or the action hadn’t been posted publicly, Booth said.
That’s not uncommon, either. Often such legal filings contain proprietary business information and may therefore be kept private.
Speaking in general terms, Booth noted that such a filing could be as simple as a railroad looking to find an additional business partner.
Railroads are regulated as regional monopolies by the federal government and their shipping rates are set by law. Thus the filing could be a way for a railroad to avoid a legal obligation to ship products at a certain rate.
Or it could eventually mean something more drastic, such as a transfer or sale of the line, abandonment, or a “rails-to-trails” conversion.
“No case ever works out the same way,” Booth said.
“Rails-to-trails” conversions, such as those that created the nearby Gandy Dancer and Stower Seven Lakes trails, are often drawn-out legal processes negotiated between the railroad and the state.
“Those things can drag on for years,” Booth said.
Among customers and neighbors of the rail line, then, one guess is as good as the next. Full disclosure: the author is an immediate neighbor of the rail line.
In the present, though, the local economic value of the rail line is clear.
Minnesota Transportation Museum, which holds trackage lease rights to operate The Osceola & St. Croix Valley Railway out of the Osceola Depot, brings thousands of people to the Osceola area each year for train rides.
Canadian National informed the museum that the status quo would remain, for this year at least, said MTM Executive Director Scott Hippert.
“(CN has) been a great partner for us and we look forward to that continuing,” Hippert said.
Osceola Chamber of Commerce vice president and local business owner Jane Maki said the town’s tourism partnership with MTM is invaluable.
“It’s the reason to be open on Sundays in the summer and fall,” Maki said. “Their advertising not only highlights riding the train, but also visiting the village and surrounding area. Sunday train riders make up most of our Sunday sales.”
Another key patron of the rail line, Dresser Trap Rock, the 107-year-old basalt mine in Dresser, has does brisk business over the years, shipping trap rock around the nation, and selling rock to the railroads themselves.
Max Bowen, Dresser Trap Rock’s vice president of sales and marketing, said the company has a long-term reserve of material and plans to continue using the line as market demand will allow.
The railroad hadn’t shared its intent for the line with him as of last week either, he said.
“We’ll just have to see,” Bowen said.
The legal notice appeared in the Feb. 10 edition of The Sun.