Rail line – Plymouth to Kohler

by Jerry Thompson

The proposed reactivation of the rail line from Plymouth to Kohler has been a long process thus far which began March 15, 2006, when the Union Pacific Railroad discontinued rail service to any businesses west of mile post 4, on the west side of Kohler. This had a direct and immediate impact on Bemis Manufacturing, Spartech Plastics, Richardson Industries, Kettle Lakes Cooperative and Morrelle Warehouse and Transfer, all users of rail services. The reason given to the businesses for termination of rail services was that the Union Pacific Railroad didn’t find the spur line as profitable as other rail operations within their system. They would rather concentrate on Unit Train services, which produce a higher rate of return for the stockholders.

Even though direct rail service had been terminated, our local industries still needed to obtain raw materials in order to fulfill contracts. It was the quick action of the Wisconsin & Southern Railroad, setting up a transfer yard in Plymouth, which made it possible to continue supplying raw materials to Bemis and Spartech, still by rail, but with the last four miles now incurring a trans loading process to trucks in Plymouth. Both Richardson and Kettle Lakes Co-op also continue to receive products by rail, but also with increased expenses as they also have to trans load and truck products the final several miles. At that time it was estimated the additional cost to the four firms to trans load and truck the final miles was in the range of $500,000 per year versus having the rail cars spotted directly at their plant sites.

As the rail line from Plymouth to Kohler was still considered an active rail line, but out of service, several people suggested we provide rail service from the West, using the Wisconsin & Southern Railroad. WSOR indicated they would be willing to provide the local switching needed, but that the rail line from Plymouth to Kohler would have to be brought up to current standards in order to operate the line. The state of Wisconsin had recently purchased (in 2005) the north-south rail line running through Plymouth from the Canadian National Railroad, another stockholder-owned company, wishing to spin off their less profitable spur lines, in order to provide positive bottom lines for their stockholders, even though the termination of many spur lines has a devastating effect on the local manufacturing firms using the rail service. The state of Wisconsin indicated they would take a look at the Plymouth to Kohler line to see if it qualified for consideration to be added to the state rail system.

An “Economic Impact Analysis: Plymouth - Kohler Rail Corridor” was conducted and published in June 2006, by the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, Bureau of Planning and Economic Development. It is 17 pages long and gives a great deal of background as to the positive impact rail service on the Plymouth to Kohler line could bring to the area. “There were no less than five food-processing businesses expressing at least some interest in reviving rail service on the Plymouth-Kohler rail. These businesses indicated that rail service could play a role in reducing their transportation costs.” [The full report can be read online at http://dailyreporter.com/files/2009/09/kohler-plymouth-rail.pdf.]

It should be noted there is between 800,000 and 1 million pounds of cheese being shipped into Plymouth each week that currently is transported from all over the United States by rail. Unfortunately for the cheese firms, the last 25 miles must be transported by truck, as we do not have a current trans load site in Plymouth, because there is no rail service to our industrial park on the east side of Plymouth.

Now there have been a few individuals who have taken a negative aim at the Economic Impact Analysis, saying it was self-serving. I say the facts are there and they do support the reactivation of the rail line. The study was done, in order to determine if the state of Wisconsin wanted to invest funds into this form of infrastructure. The results were positive, in fact so positive that the state of Wisconsin moved forward and purchased the railroad right-of-way from Reed Street in Plymouth to milepost #4 in Kohler, for just under $1 million. The state of Wisconsin must be convinced we could use rail service between Plymouth and Kohler!

Since the purchase of the rail line, we have worked closely with state officials and had an agreement voted on and passed in Madison which will provide $12 million of funding, if we can raise $3 million in matching funds locally.

Folks, at this point in time we have $2,600,000 committed to the project from other Sheboygan County Governmental units and several private industries. We are looking for $400,000 from the city of Plymouth. There are those in Plymouth who say, why should we contribute anything, we have nothing to gain? The facts are just the opposite. Plymouth has more to gain in new development than the rest of the county. We are the ones who have 200 acres of Industrial Park, with the rail line running right through the middle!

As part of the rail project, we will have a “WYE” constructed in Plymouth, which will allow us to turn entire trains that come to Plymouth from the north, east or south. For the average person this means nothing, but it is a big deal! We will be able to host excursion trains, bringing 600 to 1,000 people into Plymouth at one time. They will get off the train and visit Plymouth while the train is turned and serviced for its return trip. The Santa Steam Train from a couple of years ago is just the tip of the iceberg of what we can do on a regular basis in Plymouth. Also, I have been in contact with both the WSOR and the Sheboygan County Fair Association, regarding the transportation of folks from the north, east and south Sheboygan County to visit the fair in Plymouth, via rail! Both parties are willing to put together a yearly event, using rail transportation to the fair. The third interesting idea being considered is a Dinner Train. A new local restaurant owner wants to seriously consider sponsoring this service, but will not discuss it until we have the rail line from Plymouth to Kohler reconstructed.

If for some reason you think these events will not happen, let me just say there were those who told me the Santa Steam Train wouldn’t happen and that the Walldogs would never come to Plymouth, Wis.

What do we have to gain? Our industrial park east of State 57 is about two miles from Reed Street in Plymouth. The reconstruction of the entire 10 miles of track from Reed Street to milepost #4 in Kohler is projected to run $15 million. That is $1.5 million per mile average. What if the rail line is not constructed at this time using the local match and $12 million the state is willing to contribute? The $12 million will be lost for our area. Now let us say, two years from now we have a fine industry which says they will locate in our industrial park, but not unless we bring the rail line to them. At a cost of $1.5 million per mile, times 2 miles, we will be looking at $3 million, our cost! Our total cost at this time is $400,000. A bargain we should not pass up.

As for Quiet Zones – these are the facts. They will not be required by the commissioner of railroads for crossings at South Street, Highland and Pleasant View. The projected rail traffic and the automobile traffic on these streets do not qualify the crossings for quiet zones. It should be noted, if the quiet zones were required by the state, then the project itself would pay for their entire cost, not the city of Plymouth. If the city of Plymouth wants to install the quiet zones, they will be able to do so, but at the city’s cost, of approximately $270,000 each. They can be installed at any time in the future should they become desirable. I personally feel they are an unnecessary expense and I do not recommend them. They do not increase safety; they only allow the train to pass each crossing without blowing their horns.

For the record, trains are not required to start blowing their horns one-half mile from the crossing as some would have you believe. The requirement is for the train to blow the horn four times for each crossing, two longs, one short and one long. The last long horn sound is required to be blown as the train is crossing the roadway. It is up to the engineer to sound the horn so that the train can safely cross the road. If the train is moving slowly, as the trains would be moving through Plymouth, it would be strange for a train to sound its horn long before they can even see the crossing.

What does the Wisconsin & Southern Railroad bring to Plymouth? If the rail line is reconstructed, they will be promoting our industrial park to new businesses. They have an excellent track record of bringing new businesses into communities desiring rail service. Currently we have no one actively promoting our industrial park. Let Wisconsin & Southern Railroad do it for us!

Businesses within our industrial park being served by the Wisconsin & Southern Railroad will have direct access to six of the seven Class 1 railroads in the United States. This means our industries will have direct access to both the East Coast and West Coast, thus the entire world. Rail travel can move one ton of freight 465 miles on one gallon of diesel fuel. As fuel costs continue to rise, many industries are rediscovering the use of rail services.

At one of our recent meetings, a gentleman got up and said trains were dead, everyone ships by truck. He is very wrong. The truth is there is more tonnage being shipped by rail today in the USA than ever before. Record numbers of industries are shipping by rail, even the trucking industry ships their trailers by rail if the travel distance exceeds 300 miles or so.

The east-west rail line in Plymouth was first laid down in 1859. That is 152 years ago. It has always been a rail line. That is the reason there is no Environmental Impact Study required. The usage is exactly the same as it has been for 152 years. Impact studies would be required if the land were to be used for some other purpose.

It is sad that a small group of folks are standing in the way of this wonderful opportunity for our city and county. You must look at this from the viewpoint that spending $400,000 will provide our community with the equivalent of a brand new highway being constructed right into the heart of Sheboygan County, and right through Plymouth. Yes, some of these folks have purchased homes fairly close to the railroad right-ofway, but is it any different than if they purchased and built close to a road, which now is to be improved and which will have more traffic on it? Progress is all around us! If they were told by the promoters of the property they purchased, that the rail line was dead and it was going to be a bike path, well that just was never true. The line was always considered a rail line, just inactive. Those who investigated the facts knew it was considered an active rail line. I think people are just not wanting to admit they didn’t have the proper facts. Should this situation shut down the entire project? The facts and opportunities for our city and county far outweigh the objections of a few people who just don’t want the trains in their back yard.

Talking about trains, I don’t think two trains per week over the line (well four, because the train will need to return from Kohler) will be a terrible inconvenience for any one. We are talking short trains, not trains 100-plus cars long. As far as noise, I think the Race Track at the Fairgrounds produces far more noise each week compared to a couple of trains passing through Plymouth.

The argument has been presented that we should wait until we have a new industry desiring rail service committed to our industrial park, before we spend a dime. If this type of thought process was employed in the past, we would not have any new industrial parks in Plymouth or the new jobs that they created. My example would be the Pilgrim Road Industrial Park area on Plymouth’s southeast side. Roads, electrical, sewer, water, surveying, grading were all completed and paid for before we had anyone interested in locating in the park. I know this personally, because some 20 years ago John Lindoerfer personally contacted me about purchasing the “first lot.” He told me the development was slow to get started, but he had faith that in time it would be successful. He just needed to get that first parcel sold. He offered it to me for $10,000 which was $5,000 less than all the rest because it had an overhead high power line crossing the lot. Look at this industrial park today. It is full from north to south. The same results will happen with our current east-side industrial park. But with rail transportation available, we can attract a whole new set of businesses which most other cities will not be able to accommodate!

Relationship of Wisconsin & Southern Railroad and the state of Wisconsin. WSOR is now 30 years old and is the contract operator of some 600-plus state-owned rail lines. They pay to the state each year fees to operate over the state-owned rails. If they do not operate the rail lines to the liking of the state of Wisconsin, they can be replaced in short order. It should be noted there are over 600 Regional Shortline Railroads like WSOR operating in North America (Canada, United States and Mexico). We should thank our lucky stars we have the WSOR in Plymouth! Out of the over 600 Regional Shortlines, they have been named twice in the past 10 years, Regional Railroad of the Year in North America by Railway Age Magazine. They have also received the 2002 Marketing Award from American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association.

I invite you to check out their website at www.wsorrailroad.com. Click on Customers and see what Mary Pitzen, from Bemis Manufacturing has to say about WSOR.

Please do not pass up this Community Changing Opportunity for Plymouth, Wis. The embracing of the opportunities offered by reconstruction of the Rail Line from Plymouth to Kohler will have a positive effect on Plymouth and Sheboygan County for the next 150 years.

If you need further information, as the city of Plymouth railroad coordinator, I am willing to meet with anyone and to answer questions you may have.

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