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Monday April 21, 2014
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The Little Railroad that Could

 

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My neighbors and I have asked each other why the train travels at night, where it's going, what it carries, and, most peculiar of all, why bright green grass appears between the tracks every spring. And then, in January, came the announcement that the Ann Arbor Railroad had been purchased by Watco Railroad Holding Companies of Pittsburg, Kansas. Founded in 1983, Watco already owned twenty-nine "short line" railroads; now it has thirty. The Ann Arbor, its press release declared, was "a true short line success story."

That raised new questions. What does the sale mean for our little railroad? How did its most recent owners, who bought the line out of bankruptcy twenty-five years ago, manage not only to survive but prosper? Might the buyers be more receptive to the dream of a northbound commuter train, or a hoped-for "greenway" along its downtown tracks?

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Don Maddock, who edits AART&HA's magazine, The Double A, crisply explained the change of fortunes. "The issue with the company's viability during the middle of the 20th century was the conundrum posed by its geography," he emailed. "To support the railroad's northern 120+ miles through sparsely populated country with insignificant local business, it needed through, line-haul traffic. To have such, the lake connection to Wisconsin was pivotal, and the ferries, with their inherent high operating costs and low efficiencies, could never be profitable."

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