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North Idaho Trains Back in Action

by Barbara Coyner, Freelance Writer
Capital Press, November 3, 2006

Lumber hauled now, with more freight eyed

PRINCETON, Idaho - The mournful whistle sounded long and low as engineer Jeremy Leiterman eased the diesel locomotive over the Hatter Creek crossing at Princeton, Idaho. Cars lined up to wait on the slow-moving train, faces brightened, and a festive spirit took hold.

"We're taking it slow since it's our first run out here," said Leiterman, a third-generation railroad man. "I really have to sound the horn more because these tracks haven't been used in 11 months. But people are really glad to see the trains again, and we even had kids come out of the classroom when we brought the cars up earlier."

Leiterman and Stan Patterson teamed up to get rail service back to Princeton on Oct. 7, and have since made regularly scheduled runs to Bennett Lumber Products. The short line operates under the new name Washington and Idaho (W&I) Railroad, and currently contracts for the limited service under the watchful eye of Watco, a short-line operator involved with Washington's state-owned rail venture.

"We'll load five to seven cars each week," Bennett vice president Brett Bennett said of the restored rail service. "The market is still on its face, but we're moving volume," he added, noting that heavier white fir lumber is best shipped by rail. "We hadn't manufactured white fir all the time the trains were down, so we missed the market there."

Bennett was particularly frustrated when the railroad started charging an $870-per-car surcharge late last year. "We had record markets going but we had unsuccessful negotiations with Washington and Watco last January, so with the surcharge, it became unfeasible to use rail. It was cheaper to truck to Clarkston and pick up Watco lines out of there. But they could've made record profits here and we would've ordered 10 to 12 cars instead of six. By the time things were back up, the market was gone. The farmers lost out too."

Bennett has kept a wide-open communication channel with Tom Dooley, a rail lobbyist working out of Olympia. With expansion plans for a small-diameter log mill in the works at the Princeton mill site, Bennett wants the new W&I rail service to succeed.

He's watched tracks disappear in nearby Moscow, and knows regional short lines continue to be in flux.

"Outfits like Union Pacific are moving to large functioning unit trains, and railroads want to get rid of unprofitable short lines," he said, adding that UP doesn't automatically discourage service to such lines if they can show promise.

For now, Bennett figures he can supply steady guaranteed loads for the W&I, with more on the horizon when the small-diameter mill is up and running. He sees added seasonal traffic with various grain shippers in the area, and possible shipping alliances with other nearby mills wanting to ship through the Bennett facility.

As for Patterson, a 10-year railroad veteran who is now sinking his teeth into management, he sees plenty of potential if proposed kaolin clay mining takes off at Bovill. "For now, we'll send a spot of cars to Bennett's each week and see what opportunities come from there," Patterson said.

Barbara Coyner, Freelance Writer
North Idaho Trains Back in Action
Capital Press, November 3, 2006

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