By Scott Smith
From William Snow’s manicured back yard, the Norfolk Southern railroad looks like a thicket. Grapevine and honeysuckle have created a nearly impassable barrier, even if a rusting barbed wire fence wasn’t there.
Next year, Snow and his neighbors along Alameda Boulevard will see the wall of undergrowth behind their homes transformed, as the railroad company readies the long-dormant tracks for service.
Snow has only been in his home for four months, but he could have lived there for most of the past 20 years and not seen a train.
The same is true for just about everyone living along the old Norfolk Southern and Tipton lines, which take a southeasterly route from downtown Kokomo.
Now neighborhoods which are unaccustomed to train traffic are bracing for chugging, horn blowing and thundering trains.
“If it has to be, it has to be. I can’t stop it,” said South Ohio Street resident Wendy Betts, whose bedroom sits just a few feet from the tracks. “I’m sure we’ll probably get used to it.”
Snow said he’s hopeful the briar patch behind his home will be cleaned up when the tracks are rehabbed, but said he’d also like to see the rail corridor also become part of the city’s bike path system.
City officials have already built a bike path along the Tipton Industrial Lead line as it runs between Markland and the Kokomo Creek, so it isn’t far-fetched to think the path might continue on into the Terrace Meadows neighborhood in the future.
City officials, however, are taking it one project at a time.
The city’s immediate concern is making sure the trains will be able to make it through town, on their way to Tipton.
The administration’s main contribution to the project is to build a rail spur, which will connect the rails along East Defenbaugh Street with the rails along Home Avenue.
This week, the city’s board of works is expected to accept bids on the project, which will also install crossings -- one on Home Avenue and one on Wheeler Street -- along with crossing signals and arms.
The city’s $600,000 project is part of a larger deal which is expected to significantly reduce freight costs for one of Kokomo’s largest businesses.
Kokomo Grain, US Rail and Norfolk Southern Railroads are partnering on a $5.5 million project to reroute much of the grain company’s freight, sending it south toward Tipton instead of east toward Marion.
The project involves reopening 12 miles of unused track.
A dormant Norfolk Southern line, which runs southeast from Home Avenue, will be placed back into use, and portions of Kokomo which haven’t seen train traffic since 1997 will again be seeing and hearing trains.
The owners of Kokomo Grain also own the Tipton Lead, which will link up with Norfolk Southern after the city’s spur project is complete in the spring.
Utility relocation for the project could be performed over the winter, and don’t be surprised if cleanup work starts along the dormant rail lines this winter as well.
Jill Dunn, president and CEO of Bona Vista Industries, said she’s OK with plans to reactivate the rail line running just west of Bona Vista, as long as the rail company fences off the line.
“Cleaning up the area absolutely is a positive,” Dunn said Monday. “As long as we can keep our clients safe, I don’t see it being an issue for our organization.”
In addition to the rail spur work, which will include new storm sewers and also require the city to purchase right of way, the city must also take up the asphalt placed over the rails on U.S. 31, Alto Road and Center Road. Around 2004, the city received permission from the Indiana Department of Transportation to have several crossings designated as out of service. As part of the project, that designation will be reversed, and the railroads will install safety devices -- such as lights and stop arms -- at those intersections.
On Center Road, the lights are still there, albeit covered up with black bags.
When the project was announced at the start of October, Kokomo Mayor Greg Goodnight said Kokomo Grain and the railroads wouldn’t be the only companies to benefit from having more rail options in Kokomo.
“Kokomo and central Indiana companies will benefit from this world-class transportation system,” Goodnight said. “As an economic development tool, access to a rail system is again becoming more important to agricultural, construction and manufacturing industries.”
With about $400 million in annual sales, Kokomo Grain operates a system of 10 grain elevators in Indiana and Tennessee.
Trucks may bring local grain harvests to the elevator on Kokomo’s northside, but more than 90 percent of that grain leaves the elevator on rail, Kokomo Grain executive Scott Ortman said.
Increased rail efficiency and better rail rates should allow the company to make better bids on grain to area farmers, which in turn should increase the volume of grain moving through the elevator, he added.
“Part of the problem of the business is the inelasticity of demand,” Ortman said. “If you get higher volumes, you can protect your margins.”
While local business stands to benefit, neighbors along the unused rail line will also have to adjust to trains going by.
Neighbors along East Madison Street may have a good deal less train traffic to deal with, because the trains traveling along the Central Railroad of Indiana tracks will now be heading south.
Trains will again be using the trestle across Sycamore Street.
Then the trains will head southeast between OmniSource and Future Park, cross Markland Avenue just west of Diamond Street (near the Barker’s BK restaurant), and then turn straight south to travel just west of Bona Vista.
The trains will turn back west at Bona Vista and travel to the north of the Inventrek Technology Park before turning southeast once more at Home Avenue.
One resident along South Ohio Street Monday didn’t want to give his name, but said he understood that the rail lines were privately owned, and could be put back into service.
“I don’t guess there’s anything a person can do or say about it, but the tracks haven’t been in service for so many years,” he said. “It’s just been sitting dormant for all this time, so why do it now?”
Scott Smith can be reached at (765) 454-8569 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.