By Mark S. Bassett
Those two sticks of rusty rail that run from Ely to Shafter have the potential to change our economic future and provide opportunities for our youth, right here, at home.
The Nevada Northern Railway was built in 1905/1906 to serve the copper deposits in White Pine County. Due to economic factors, the copper mining and smelting ended in 1983. In 1987, the railroad was divided, the City of Los Angeles purchased the northern two-thirds of the railroad for a power plant project. The southern third of the railroad was given to the City of Ely and the White Pine Historical Railroad Foundation to create the Nevada Northern Railway Museum. In 2005, the City of Ely and the Foundation purchased the track that was owned by the City of Los Angeles. The railroad was made whole again.
In 1996, the copper mine was re-opened and copper concentrate was shipped via the railroad until 1999. After closing briefly, the mine was reopened in 2004. But this time, instead of the copper concentrate going out by rail, it leaves White Pine County by truck and still does today.
In addition to the outbound loads, the mine needs 1,000,000 gallons of fuel per month or 113 truckloads. That means in a month’s time, more than 800 heavy trucks are needed to support the mine. The situation will only get worse as new mines open in the region or existing mines re-open.
Reopening the railroad will increase the economic viability of northeast Nevada impacting the counties of Elko, Eureka, Nye and White Pine. There is no cheaper way of moving large quantities of freight on land than by rail. A freight train can move a ton of freight approximately 500 miles with just one gallon of fuel. Mining is the ideal industry to take advantage of the cost savings offered by rail. Lower transportation costs will increase mine life and improve the economic health of White Pine County.
With or without mining, the reopening of the Nevada Northern Railway can bring significant economic benefit to Ely and White Pine County. Currently, everything needed in the county must be trucked in, including all fuel, food, building supplies, heavy equipment, etc. Truck traffic on the highways is further increased by outbound shipping of oil from Railroad Valley, hay and livestock from local farms and ranches.
Without the Railroad, there are no alternatives to shipping other than by truck. During the past several years, there have been many local discussions and strong interest to develop new agricultural and industrial projects in the County. However, the high cost of truck shipping, derails these projects. Ely is in a central geographic location, basically equidistant from Las Vegas, Elko, Salt Lake City, and Twin Falls. With the Railroad, it could be an ideal location for warehouses and distribution centers.
The community faces a chicken and egg quandary; the economic need for the railroad has been established. But how to get the railroad open to take advantage of this economic need? Every year that goes by, there is an increase in cost in opening the railroad.
When the mine reopened in 2004, it was estimated that the railroad could be opened for $4,000,000. Over the past 12 years that figured has increased about a $1,000,000 a year. Now the cost to open the railroad is about $16,000,000. That is a large chunk of money, but it is a doable chunk of money that is not outside the realm of possibility. So how do you raise $16,000,000?
There are three possible ways of raising this amount of money, grants, loans or a public/private partnership. The process may include some sort of combination of all three.
The biggest grant out there is from the federal government and it is called the TIGER Grant. It is usually funded at about $500,000,000 per year. The railroad has applied twice for the TIGER Grant and came close both times. TIGER is scheduled to be made available in 2016 and the railroad will submit another application.
The federal government recognizes the importance of railroads and has offered a low interest loan program. The Railroad Rehabilitation & Improvement Financing (RRIF) Program provides direct federal loans and loan guarantees to finance development of railroad infrastructure. This program provides direct loans that can fund up to 100% of a railroad project with repayment periods of up to 35 years and interest rates equal to the cost of borrowing to the government. Eligible borrowers include railroads, state and local governments, government-sponsored authorities and corporations, joint ventures that include at least one railroad, and limited option freight shippers who intend to construct a new rail connection. Annual loan payments on $16,000,000 would be about $465,208.
The railroad is jointly owned by the City of Ely and the White Pine Historical Railroad Foundation, a governmental agency and a non-profit corporation. If the City and the Foundation were to partner with private industry, we could create a public/private partnership. Currently the City and the Foundation have an agreement with a private company on using the track from McGill Junction north. Unfortunately, this partnership has hit a roadblock at the current time.
Opening the railroad would most likely be a combination of grants, loans and a public/private partnership. The $16,000,000 just opens the railroad to start moving freight cars and generating revenue. This money would repair crossings, remove brush, install ties and ballast but it would leave the rail as it is. And the rail is a weakness.
Railroad rail is measured in pounds per yard. The railroad was built over a century ago using 60 pound rail. From the mine in Ruth to the mill in McGill, the rail was replaced with 90 pound rail on straightaways and 115 pound rail on curves. But unfortunately, the main railroad is still the original 60 pound rail. This is not a deal breaker. You have to plan your operations around the 60 pound rail.
Train speed would be 10 mph. It would take a day to make Shafter. Yes this is painfully slow, but one train can haul 40 cars of concentrate. That takes 120 trucks off of the road. On the trip back, the train can bring fuel and other supplies needed by the community along with empties. We have a balanced railroad – loads in and out. As the track is improved, speed can increase to 20 mph. That doesn’t sound like much, but that’s 100% faster and lowers the transit time to 6 hours. And the average speed on the major railroads for freight trains is about 21 mph so the Nevada Northern Railway would be comparable.
From 1996-1999 the railroad was used to haul the copper concentrate from the mine at Ruth to the interchange with the Union Pacific at Shafter. The proposed $16,000,000 improvements would address tie and ballast issues. Ties are what hold the railroad together. If the ties are good and supported by ballast, then the 60 pound rail can do the job.
Track is categorized by the Federal Railroad Administration in classes. The specifications for the different classes is what determines the speed of the trains on that track. The specifications address the number of ties needed, gauge (the width between the rails), cross level and other aspects of the track. But what is not talked about is the weight of the rail. So it is allowed to use 60 pound rail in freight service. Is it ideal, no. Heavier rail would be preferable and it could be gotten and installed once the railroad opens.
This is a big advantage to having a non-profit involved in the railroad. A non-profit can ask for donations. Across northern Nevada, the Union Pacific operates its trains at 70 mph. To do so, it needs rock solid track, so they change out their rail frequently. Major railroads are always changing out rail that does not met their uses. But this rail, while not useful to the major railroad would be ideal for the Nevada Northern Railway and it can be donated to the non-profit. With the ties and ballast already in place, changing out rail is no big deal. With heavier rail, new ties and ballast in place, then you will have a first class railroad. It can be done, it will take time and money. But the successful completion of opening the railroad allows White Pine County to become part of the international economy. It opens up a broad range of economic opportunities that are currently passing us by.
In 2008, the Foundation rebuilt the railroad crossing near McGill to allow access to the northern part of the railroad. The railroad from Currie north is currently in service and interchanges with the BNSF Railway and the Union Pacific Railroad. The pieces are in place, it can be done. The Nevada Northern Railway has been serving White Pine County for over a century. Rebuilding the railroad will allow it to serve the community for the next century and start an economic renaissance.
About the Nevada Northern Railway: The Nevada Northern Railway Museum is a designated National Historic Landmark. Voted the state’s Best Rural Museum and the Best Place to Take the Kids by readers of Nevada Magazine, the Nevada Northern Railway Museum also has been featured on Modern Marvels, American Restorations and on PBS. For more information, call 775-289-2085, log onto www.NNRY.com or to get the latest news “Like” the Railway’s Facebook page.
Mark Bassett is the Executive Director of the museum. He can be reached by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; or by first class mail at: 1100 Avenue A, PO Box 150040, East Ely, NV 89315.