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Owner Seeks to Abandon Idaho Railway

Transportation: The historic Camas Prairie Railnet is vital to farmers and loggers who ship products on it. But its owners say it isn't profitable.


SPALDING, Idaho — It's one of the most spectacular rail lines in the West, moving through seven tunnels and across high wooden trestles that resemble giant Lincoln Logs.

The 67-mile line is so scenic that it was used in the movie "Breakheart Pass" and more recently in the movie "Wild Wild West."

But the breathtaking scenery is part of the problem for Camas Prairie Railnet, whose owner wants to abandon the line because of high costs and little business. Those 300-foot-high trestles and steep grades make the rail line too expensive to maintain, owners say.

The farmers and timber companies that rely on the only rail line between the towns of Spalding and Grangeville want the federal government to block the proposed abandonment.

Roger Nelson, who with two partners owns Camas Prairie Railnet, contends that the line is losing about $1 million a year and that business must improve if it is to survive.

"We need a dramatic upturn in traffic," Nelson said from the headquarters of Railnet in Bedford, Texas. "A 50% increase in traffic is break-even."

The magic number is 3,000 carloads of business, Nelson said. Currently, Camas Prairie Railnet ships about 2,000 carloads each year.

"Abandonment and salvage of the railroad is the last thing I or my partners want," Nelson said. "We don't want one spike pulled up."

Some local businesses have banded together to petition the U.S. Surface Transportation Commission to deny the abandonment. A decision on that petition is expected this month.

"To us it appears they had had abandonment as their goal since they purchased the line in 1998," said John Bennett, head of Shearer Lumber Co. in Grangeville, Idaho.

Shippers contend that the rail line can be profitable at the current level of traffic, and that business is actually improving.

Bennett blames many of the financial problems on the rail company's poor contracts with larger railroads to move products across the nation.

He said it costs about $4,000 to ship a carload of lumber from Grangeville to Chicago. The money is split by Camas Prairie Railnet and the other shippers who complete the trip.

"We believe there's plenty of margin in there to operate profitably," Bennett said.

The state of Idaho is also opposed to the proposed abandonment. Its objection, filed with the Surface Transportation Board, marks only the fourth time in 15 years that the Idaho Public Utilities Commission has protested closing tracks.

"Abandonment would clearly cause a severe adverse impact on rural development," Gov. Dirk Kempthorne said in the state's response to the abandonment filing.

Loss of rail would especially hurt the 670 malt barley growers who use the rail line. Malt barley can be shipped only by rail because that's the only way buyers will receive it, state officials said.

In addition, 18,000 more trucks would crowd U.S. 95 each year to make up for the rail line's capacity, the state said.

The state disputes Railnet's contention that it loses $1 million per year on the line. The state contends the line is profitable and would remain so in the future.

The rail line primarily serves three grain companies and two timber companies.

"Wheat goes to Portland," said Shawn O'Connell of Columbia Grain in Lewiston, one of the line's main customers. "Malt barley, peas, lentils, canola, we load it on rail and ship it all over."

Railnet connects with the Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroads to ship products across the nation.

It's a lot easier to ship lumber by rail than by truck, said Mike Ebert, traffic manager of U.S. Timber Co. in Craigmont, another big customer.

O'Connell said the shippers would like to see another railroad company buy the line and keep it operating. The shippers don't have the expertise to run it themselves, he said.

Bennett said some rail companies have expressed interest in buying the line, although he called Railnet's $2.6-million asking price excessive.

Bennett said the shippers might be willing to pay a higher rate to keep service alive.

Nelson said that regardless of what the federal government decides, Camas Prairie Railnet will continue operating through at least the rest of the year.

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