The little railroad that could

The little railroad that could

Being overshadowed by the state's giant lines has not stopped the Bighorn Divide & Wyoming Railroad from finding a place in the state's transportation network.

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SHOSHONI - The Bighorn Divide & Wyoming Railroad is like an ant in a land of giants.

But it's an industrious ant.

The BDW cannot be compared seriously with the Union Pacific or the Burlington Northern Santa Fe. The railroad ships and receives about 8,500 cars a year.

By contrast, just taking into account its 2005 business in the Powder River Basin, an average of 39 BNSF coal trains snaked across the Wyoming prairie every day and hauled 207 million tons of coal, according to spokesman Gus Melonas.

The BDW has about 40 miles of track, 23 miles of which is actually owned by BNSF. The Burlington Northern Santa Fe operates 966 miles of railroad in Wyoming, while the Union Pacific has 881 miles, according to the Association of American Railroads.

Far from being crushed underfoot, however, the little line has carved out an ingenious transportation niche for itself.

The origins of the BDW were not in railroading, but in trucking, as soda ash was moved from the Green River Basin to the railhead at Bonneville.

But an opportunity arose to add rail to what essentially was an industrial yard, then came a rail-car repair shop in Shoshoni. Today, the trucking company, the railroad and the repair shop are distinct business entities headed by Riverton businessman Cliff Root.

The BDW is a feeder railroad for the Burlington Northern Santa Fe. It also is a "transloader" in that it interacts with BTI, the trucking portion of Root's business triumvirate. In addition, the railroad opened the door for repairing rail cars.

Trucks bring soda ash from Sweetwater County to Bonneville, which is then loaded into railroad cars. The cars are coupled together by BDW workers for pick-up by the Burlington North Santa Fe, whose mainline runs through Bonneville.

The BDW also has running rights on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe to the Lost Cabin gas plant near Lysite, where molten sulfur produced as a by-product is loaded onto railroad cars. The short-line takes the cars to Bonneville, and every four days, the BDW makes up a unit train, which the Burlington Northern Santa Fe picks up and hauls to Galveston, Texas.

At the same time, rail cars in need of repairs are dropped off by BNSF at Bonneville. They are picked up by BDW crews and taken to the shop facilities in Shoshoni.

When the repairs are completed, the cars are transported back to Bonneville. The BNSF then picks them up and hauls them to where they are needed.

In addition to soda ash and sulfur, the BDW handles such commodities as lime. Acid is transferred from the railroad to trucks at Shoshoni and shipped to Riverton for processing.

Oscar Kelsey, operations manager for the railroad, says there is an ongoing conversation about which is more important in the mix, trucks or the railroad.

The right answer is neither.

And both.

"Transloading is key," Kelsey says, which requires both trucks and railroad. The one does not function without the other.

BDW has three engines - two for switching railroad cars and one road unit for use on the Lost Cabin gas plant run - and 16 employees, including switchmen, conductors and engineers.

The BDW is the only independent short line which operates within the state, although the Dakota, Minnesota & Eastern Railroad, classified as a regional line with headquarters in Sioux Falls, S.D., does run to Colony, Wyo.

Root thinks there may be additional opportunities for small railroads. In terms of the BDW, Roots says one idea is to extend the railroad's reach into the Wind River Indian Reservation, which is rich in minerals but lacks rail transportation.

One thing no small railroad can afford to do is fight with the resident giants.

"As a state, we have virtually no control over them," Root says. "You don't leverage class 1 railroads. It just doesn't happen … What you do is try to get a nonadversarial position with them and make cooperative deals."

While the state is doing a better job of planning such things as highways and pipelines, Root says the same cannot be said for rail transportation: "We have no idea what we're doing with railroads."

This despite the fact that rail service is likely to become increasingly important in the years ahead.

"This year we're 20,000 across the nation short of truck drivers," he says. "Within a couple of years, we're going to be 60,000 bodies short."

Root notes that the Wyoming Constitution prohibits the state from building railroads.

"The legislature shall have no power to pass any law authorizing the state or any county in the state to contract any debt or obligation in the construction of any railroad, or give or loan its credit to or in aid of the construction of same," it reads.

But then Root is not suggesting that the state should go into the railroad business, only that it become more actively engaged in developing an integrated railroad system.

"The state of Wyoming is trying to grow and diversify," he says. "We have all these minerals, and we have no rail plan."

Business Editor Tom Mast can be reached at tom.mast@casperstartribune.net, or call 307-266-0574.

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