Re: the implications of how the CRIP Choctaw Route was kill ed

John Hodkin Jr.

Dr. Pollard is the leading Arkansas railroad history historian. He and Bart know what they are talking about. The thing that amazes me is this was before intermodal really exploded into what it is today. I believe Santa Fe was trying to position themselves to be the southern leader of intermodal. They eventually proved the importance of it before BNSF. The what if game of what would I-40 be like today if that line had been saved is interesting to discuss. It took the UP years to realize the importance of intermodal traffic to the Memphis gateway to the east.

On Mar 18, 2023, at 11:41 AM, arkrail2001 via <arkrail@...> wrote:

I have a copy of the final rail district legislation as passed, but I haven't looked for it in decades and would have to do a deep dig to find it, but could do so if you are unable to locate it.

As I recall, without going into newspaper clippings, there was first discussion about the state simply buying the line as Oklahoma was then in the process of doing.  The Arkansas Highway Department (a much larger and more powerful entity than the Arkansas Transportation Commission) was not in favor of spending state money for a railroad, and basically torpedoed that idea.  Never mind that keeping the railroad running would have saved highway maintenance costs; remember that a lot of highway policy was and is being driven by highway contractors and related interests who might not have gotten a piece of the pie if any significant amount of the state transportation budget was diverted to rail.

The general chronology was shutdown, assessment of outright state purchase and lease to an operator, and continuing negotiation with Gibbons who was determined to extract maximum value.  Gibbons was also beginning to use the Sunbelt as an example of a line that he would happily scrap if his purchase price was not met, thus putting the fear into purchasers of other segments to conclude their transactions at similarly inflated prices.  The Santa Fe had run at least one inspection train from Amarillo to Memphis back in 1975 (See Remember the Rock Magazine, Vol 7 #4, "Santa Fe Scouts the Choctaw") so the interest in the Memphis gateway had been present well before shutdown.  Santa Fe even put out a brochure touting "El Venado" (The Deer), Zippy run-thru freight service between Memphis and the Santa Fe southwest via RI and Amarillo, so the other carriers were well aware of what could happen if the Sunbelt/Choctaw line was acquired by the Santa Fe and rehabilitated.  Unfortunately, I do not have a copy of the proposed legislation that would have enabled Arkansas to get into the railroad business; this was the legislation that needed to pass to allow the state to get involved in the financing of rehabilitation as part of the Santa Fe acquisition.

After the Santa Fe deal fell through, MKT expressed some interest and one of more hi-rail inspection trips were made over the line, focusing generally on the McAlester to Memphis segment, and with the understanding that McAlester to Howe was likely to be saved anyway.  I do not believe that there was any actual Arkansas legislative action with regard to the MKT interest, it may not have ever progressed to that level.  After the MKT effort fell through, L.B. Foster was beginning to scrap secondary lines in the area and in fact even ran a rail sled over a segment of the line in eastern Oklahoma (which was later spiked back down).  When the rail district idea surfaced in western Arkansas, everyone understood that this was the final chance to preserve the line.  Intense lobbying by former RI employees, rail advocates and others was not enough to overcome the wining, dining and political prowess of the MP and RI hired guns, however, and the public interest took a beating at the hands of the 1980s version of the "greedy rail barons."

There is absolutely no question in my mind that MP and SSW wanted to see the east-west route destroyed as a through route, eliminating the threat of some future operation siphoning off some of their lucrative long-haul freight traffic to and from the west.  Once the rail district legislation was neutered by the MP and SSW lobbyists, L.B. Foster began scrapping operations at two points on the line, between Brinkley and Hazen, and eastward from the Oklahoma border.  With great effort, the segment from Perry west to Danville was saved and became a part of the LR&W operation (although much of that segment is now inactive and at risk).  Scrapping operations continued up to the west end of the Petit Jean River bridge at Danville.  The picture below is at Havana AR during the scrapping process - what it looks like when a welded rail mainline is cut into lengths to be hauled out by truck during dismemberment of the Sunbelt line.  It was a sickening scene to observe in person.  40 years later, the question still lingers, what could have been done differently to have achieved a better outcome?

Bill Pollard


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