Rodney Gordon, general manager of the Grand Elk, said the 151-mile link between Elkhart and Grand Rapids is a critical route offering access to rail routes that service the contiguous United States.
"We connect with three Class 1 railroads that reach points all across the country ... having the ability to meet up with those (Class 1 railroads) is obviously pretty important," Rodney said, mentioning the Grand Elk's tracks intersect with CSX Transportation in Grand Rapids, Canadian National Railway in Kalamazoo and Norfolk Southern in Elkhart.
The Grand Elk is a Class III railroad and one of 21 railroads owned by Watco Companies, based in Pittsburg, Kan. Rodney said Watco took an interest in establishing the Grand Elk after Norfolk Southern decided to let go of the line to focus on routes elsewhere.
Rodney said Grand Elk made a significant financial and operational commitment to the route, which also passes through Kalamazoo and Allegan counties before entering Kent County. Its 25 miles in St. Joseph County begin in Mottville Township, cross U.S. 131 in White Pigeon Township, skirt the west side of Constantine and further north cut through the heart of Three Rivers - crossing at Michigan Avenue just south of downtown and at Main Street by Frankie's restaurant. From there, the tracks run parallel to U.S. 131 to the county line.
On the maintenance side, the Grand Elk installed 12,000 new railroad ties and 600 tons of ballast were added, Gordon said. The upgrade allowed trains to increase their speed from 10 mph along many stretches between Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo to 25 mph. The route from Kalamazoo to Elkhart also has seen improvements allowing its 200,000-pound locomotives to run at speeds of up to 40 mph in certain stretches, Rodney said.
He noted that a capital plan for 2010 includes bridge upgrades and more track improvements. The enhancements, Gordon said, could prompt the Federal Railroad Administration, which determines rail speeds, to allow the Grand Elk even faster speeds along stretches of its route. Considering the Grand Elk's role is transporting goods, Rodney said being able to deliver materials quickly is critical.
"Besides boat, rail is the most economical way to transport goods-four semi trailers can fit inside one box car, so there's definitely an efficiency factor in our favor," Gordon said. "Speed is an important complement to efficiency and we're hopeful our maximum speeds will get the OK for an increase."
The Grand Elk's largest customer is The Andersons Inc., which has a substantial grain elevator operation in Mottville Township. It also added a new spur line to service Fresh Solution Farms, a potato- and onion-processing and packing facility, also in Mottville Township.
Further north, the Grand Elk services a number of other companies in White Pigeon, Constantine, Schoolcraft and deeper into Kalamazoo County. Otsego Paper and Bay Valley Foods in Allegan County are major clients.
Rodney said success and profits are measured in large part by number of rail cars transported. Gordon said the economy may still be in the doldrums but a ray of hope could be growing brighter based on Grand Elk's numbers. Three months into its service, the company was transporting about 2,200 rail cars a month. By the end of 2009, it was handling about 3,000 cars, Gordon said.
Gordon, 39 and a former Canadian National employee, said it's the company's job to make sure the transport needs of its 55-plus customers are met.
"The Norfolk Southern can get materials to Elkhart, where we take it from there up to Grand Rapids," Gordon said. "We're competitors (with Norfolk Southern) but we're also strategic partners that need each other to survive."