Local leaders to work with new management to spur industry growth
photo/Patriot Rail Company
The longtime Georgia Northeastern Railroad owner has retired. Patriot Rail Company will now manage day-to-day operations of the short-line railroad that runs through Pickens County.
Georgia Northeastern Railroad, which operates 106 miles of railroad between Marietta and Mineral Bluff, Ga., including the 20 miles of track in Pickens, is under new ownership and will be managed by a separate rail services company.
SR Transportation Holdings, LLC purchased Georgia Northeastern Railroad (GNRR) and its subsidiary Blue Ridge Scenic Excursions on October 15, 2015 from Wilds Pierce, who had owned Georgia Northeastern since 1989. Pierce sold the railroad so he could retire. The purchase price is not being released.
GNRR is not going out of business but will operate as usual under the new ownership, which has contracted with Patriot Rail Company to manage day-to-day operations for the short-line railroad. Operations include freight shipping, as well as passenger service on the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway. Primary goods transported by freight are timber, grain, poultry and marble.
Maureen Donnelly, spokesperson for Patriot Rail, said immediate plans call for nearly $2 million in upgrades along the track, including approximately 12,000 new rail ties and six miles of bridge and structural improvements, as well as capital improvements to locomotives and other equipment. Cherokee County has the largest portion of track along the route, but investment in improvement will be equally distributed along the rail miles and needs of each prospective county.
The rail itself dates back to the late 19th century, when the line was originally built. Ground was broken in 1874 in Marietta, with service to Canton beginning in 1879. The line reached Jasper in 1883, then Ellijay in 1884 and two years later Blue Ridge and its terminus in Mineral Bluff.
“The line was not in bad shape, but it needed some upgrades to maintain safety,” Donnelly said from the Patriot Rail headquarters in Jacksonville, Fla.
According to Donnelly, rail transportation is one of the most cost-effective ways to move freight, with more and more businesses seeking out property that has easy access to rail, which she said is less expensive to ship than modes like trucking because of increased motor carrier regulations, higher fuel costs and a growing truck driver shortage.
“The fact that Pickens County is rail accessible makes it a very attractive place for business to locate, especially those shipping or receiving large volumes of goods,” Donnelly said. “And more businesses mean more jobs.”
Local leaders are already working with Patriot Rail to forge a strong working relationship with the rail services company in hopes of bolstering commercial and industrial development in Pickens.
"The companies that require rail service are often top organizations which provide significant employment opportunities and above average wages,” said Pickens County Economic Development Director Gerry Nechvatal. “Having rail served sites and buildings allows us to be competitive and is one of the reasons that Standridge [Color Corporation] chose to build a new plant here, and is now expanding it. We are fortunate to have an emerging rail company acquire the GNRR and our plan to work closely with them to attract new industry gets kicked off at a meeting this week."
The Patriot Rail spokesperson said former GNRR owner Pierce is helping them make and maintain the good relationships he developed with local leaders in the more than 25 years he owned the railroad. She also said that prior to the acquisition of the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway, SteelRiver had not owned a passenger rail.
“This is new,” Donnelly said. “Moving passengers is much different than hauling grain.”
Donnelly said Patriot Rail will designate a separate general manager for the passenger rail in Fannin County, but that operation resources would likely be shared between freight and passenger management.
While Patriot Rail will manage Georgia Northeastern Railroad, most of the physical rail in Pickens County is owned by CSX Transportation. CSX leases the rail out to rail service providers like GNRR and Patriot Rail.
In total, GNRR owns about 48 miles and leases about 32.74 miles from CSX. The remaining miles belong to the Georgia Department of Transportation.
Both Patriot Rail Company and SR Transportation Holdings, LLC are indirect subsidiaries of SteelRiver Infrastructure Partners, an independent investment management firm that invests in core infrastructure assets in North America. Patriot Rail Company manages over 630 miles of rail and railcar facilities in North America. It is a short-line rail company that operates 10 railroads in 12 states. They also operate a rail car facility in Keysville, Virginia.