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Home / News & Reviews / News Wire / CN, Watco ask STB to unfreeze Wisconsin, Michigan branch line sales before winter (updated)

CN, Watco ask STB to unfreeze Wisconsin, Michigan branch line sales before winter (updated)

By Bill Stephens | October 12, 2021

Regulators put indefinite hold on transfer of lines to Watco in April

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Map of Watco linces purchased from CN
Map of Watco linces purchased from CN
CN is asking the Surface Transportation Board to act on the planned sale of lines in Wisconsin and Michigan to Watco. (Watco)

WASHINGTON – Canadian National and Watco have urged the Surface Transportation Board to lift the hold it placed on the transfer of nearly 500 miles of former Wisconsin Central branch lines.

Watco, in a filing on Tuesday, told the board that it has been preparing to launch service on the routes in Wisconsin and the neighboring Upper Peninsula of Michigan while awaiting a board decision.

“Watco has hired and trained over 40 team members (T&E, track laborers, etc.) and has purchased or leased and positioned equipment including 24 locomotives and track maintenance and inspection equipment,” the short line operator said. “Our desire is to start these operations as safely and efficiently as possible. To that end, we are eager to commence operations before the onset of winter and snowfall which can pose multiple challenges, particularly to new operations.”

Watco said it has worked with shippers to identify several opportunities for growth in rail traffic on the lines. “To execute on those opportunities will require upgrades to track and bridge infrastructure,” Watco said. “However, the window for making those upgrades this year will soon close with the arrival of winter.”

The lawyer for CN’s Wisconsin Central Lines subsidiary last week told the STB that the railroads “desire to complete the proposed line sale transactions prior to the onset of winter and snowfall that could disrupt the efficient start-up of Watco operations. WCL encourages the Board to issue decisions to accommodate the timely transfer of the subject rail lines.”

The STB in April indefinitely postponed the proposed sale of 471 miles of former Wisconsin Central branches in the Badger State and the neighboring Upper Peninsula of Michigan [see “STB delays Watco’s acquisition …,” Trains News Wire, April 27, 2021]. At the time, the board ordered Watco to respond to concerns that some shippers, shipper associations, and U.S. Rep Tom Tiffany, R-Wis., had raised about the sale.

The transaction, which would create the 328.52-mile Fox Valley & Lake Superior and the 142.64-mile Grand Elk Railroad, typically falls into a category that would make it exempt from board review. Watco had hoped to begin operating the routes by June 30.

The line-sale deal, announced in March, has won broad support from shippers, major shipping groups, economic development groups, and business leaders and transportation officials in Wisconsin [see “Support grows for Watco purchase …,” News Wire, April 16, 2021]

— Updated at 8:50 a.m. CDT Oct. 13 with information from Watco filing.

11 thoughts on “CN, Watco ask STB to unfreeze Wisconsin, Michigan branch line sales before winter (updated)

  1. The only line currently working in Michigan’s upper peninsula that WATCO has purchased is the Trout Lake to Munising section. The line to White Pine is totally out of service, hasn’t seen a train in years, and would cost a ton of work/money just to get it up to 10 mph standard, to service 1 potential customer in White Pine. I think CN snookered WATCO into taking an all or nothing offer. Just my opinion.

  2. Another great map from TRAINS. Doesn’t show major (or junction or endpoint) stations like Owen, Superior, Marengo, Chippewa Falls, New RIchmond, or even East Winona. Doesn’t show the CN main line into Chicago! The best one is that Ashland is shown twice: Once where it really is, and again at Bradley.


    1. Mark,
      If you read the caption, that is a Watco supplied map….probably all they care about are the lines they’re purchasing

      1. Hi Lance! Yeah, I totally get that about the Watco map. I think TRAINS could have tweaked it a bit for clarity or provided their own. But that would have required understanding the shortcomings of the map….

    2. Yup on the map issue…also, it shows another line running diagonal northwest to Ashland Wisconsin, with the last stretch being “Watco/CN shared trackage”. ( a ghost line) The only track still in existence to Ashland Wi is the out of service line going due north of Prentice Wi., which CN has included in the “deal”. And, this line is another out of service line for at least the last 2 years, due to a big washout around Marengo Junction.

  3. I’m curious as to what the Grand Elk Railroad has to do with this. It’s a Watco-owned line in the Lower Peninsula, not even shown on the map, and connecting with CN only at Schoolcraft, Michigan.

  4. The out of service line between Rhinelander and Goodman is also in poor shape. There is however an abandoned diesel switcher at what at one time was a crossing with the C&NW near Laona.

  5. Any relationship to the fact that Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is attempting to shut down a Enbridge NG pipeline from Canada? Canada just invoked Rule 77 in the US-Canada Treaty to over rule the Gov’s actions. There was some talk that if the pipeline was closed, Enbridge would be forced to use rail via a Wisconsin port.

    1. Not just a NG line John, it’s Enbridge Line 5, a 30 inch 540,000 barrel per day pipeline. This line supplies oil and NG liquids to parts of the United States and Ontario and Quebec as well as 65 % of propane used in Michigan’s upper peninsula. If this were to happen, CN and CP would be overwhelmed with oil trains since there is essentially no other backup to feed 8 refineries in Canada and the United States.

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