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New short-line railroad serves ag, lumber

Don Blansett says his new railroad, Modoc Northern, can help stimulate the development of additional agricultural markets.
Lee Juillerat, Freelance Writer

TULELAKE, Calif. – Agricultural items are among products being hauled in increasing volumes between Alturas, Calif., and Klamath Falls, Ore., by the new Modoc Northern Railroad. It took over operations from Union Pacific on 104 miles of tracks Nov. 1.

“We should be doubling the car loading in the first 18 months,” said Don Blansett, who is overseeing the startup for Modoc Northern, a subsidiary of Utah Central Railway based in Ogden, Utah.
Blansett said Modoc Northern hauls agricultural, lumber and mining products from Lake County in Oregon and Modoc and Siskiyou counties in far Northern California to Klamath Falls for distribution to larger railroads. The rail line is based in Tulelake, the first time the city has had on-ground rail operations since 1974.

“We think we have a long-term viability here,” Blansett said. “We see agriculture as still an ongoing business.”

So far, Winema Elevators and Basin Fertilizer are the railroad’s largest Tulelake-area customers; others include Wong Potatoes Inc. and Cal-Ore Potatoes.

“They’ve demonstrated the right kind of attitude that’s good for the community and for my company,” said Chris Kandra of Winema Elevators.

Kandra said Modoc Northern owners were the best of several interested in taking over the line. “So far, I think we’ve got the pick of the litter.”

Modoc Northern is also drawing favorable reviews from Ray Simms, who oversees the 55-mile-long Lake County Railroad, which runs from Lakeview to Alturas.

Simms said November was the second-best month since the county bought the shortline to Alturas in 1997. Lake County shipped 126 cars in November, and he credits some of the increase with the availability of rail cars and optimism created by Modoc Northern’s new owners.

Blansett, Utah Central’s general superintendent, said the railroad studied the Alturas-Klamath Falls link starting in 2003. The strong early start, he said, verifies predictions that improved service would expand rail shipping and develop economic development opportunities.

“Our success directly relates to the viability of the communities we serve. That’s our key to the future,” Blansett said.

Unlike Union Pacific, which operates on a large scale, Blansett said, Utah Central works best in local markets.

“What we’re able to do is pick up a block of cars and move them, so we’re able to provide local service that fits the customer’s needs. We’re also an economic development tool. We have the ability to market, and we have the ability to site new industry.”

Blansett said Modoc Northern is actively seeking new or expanded business from horseradish and potato growers. He also believes the railroad can bring in new industries, with possibilities including pork and frozen food processing companies.

“We see opportunities here, especially to serve the Southern California market. I think it’s just a matter of time.”

Blansett said Modoc Northern will offer small packaging service among Klamath Falls, Tulelake and Alturas. Limited passenger service is also envisioned.

“There’s not really a market for a recreational railroad,” he said. “But we will offer passenger service. We’ll be able to accommodate that.”

He said efforts are ongoing to improve rail crossings and to remove weeds and garbage from the Tulelake area and alongside tracks.

“We’ve got to sell not only to our local customers but (also) to people who might come here someday.”

Trains travel between Tulelake and Klamath Falls Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and between Alturas and Tulelake Tuesdays and Thursdays and, if needed, Saturdays.

The Alturas depot connects with the Lake County Railroad, which hauls perlite and timber products from Lakeview.

Blansett said the community had two concerns, noise from parked locomotives and too easily activitated crossing signals. The railroad will soon add a caboose for practical reasons and to handle safety issues. Track will be reinstalled to service yards in Tulelake.

“We’ll see longer trains rolling through town,” Blansett said.




Page Updated: Thursday May 07, 2009 09:14 AM  Pacific

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