Watco purchases lines in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ontario from CN (updated)

Watco purchases lines in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ontario from CN (updated)

By | March 30, 2021

Short line company will add 650 miles in U.S., 250 in Canada; will operate Agawa Canyon Tour Train

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Map of Watco linces purchased from CN
Watco has purchased lines in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ontario from Canadian National (Watco)

Watco logoMONTREAL — Watco will buy 650 miles of branch lines in Wisconsin and Michigan from Canadian National, along with 250 miles of the company’s Soo Subdivision in Ontario, the companies announced today.

In Ontario, where it acquires the line between Sault Ste. Marie and Oba, Ont., Watco will provide freight operations and continue the Agawa Canyon Tour Train, which offers one-day excursions from Sault St. Marie north for 114 miles. Watco has also signed a memorandum of understanding with the Missanabie Cree First Nation regarding partnership opportunites for the Algoma Central Railway.

Canadian National logoThe U.S. lines are being purchased from affiliate Wisconsin Central. In Wisconsin, Watco already operates the Wisconsin & Southern, which it acquired in 2012 and has 598 miles and 180 miles of trackage rights. The company also has two operations in Michigan — the 86.5-mile Ann Arbor Railroad and 122.9-mile Grand Elk Railroad. Overall, the company operates more than 40 railroads and 5,500 miles of track in North America and Australia, in addition to terminals, ports, and mechanical shops.

CN had announced its plans to sell the lines in July 2020 [see “CN to sell 850 miles of low-density lines …,” Trains News Wire, July 21, 2020], with CEO JJ Ruest saying at the time, “When we looked at our U.S. network, we decided some part of the network is better in the hands of others” Terms of the agreement were not announced. The acquisition of the U.S. lines is subject to approval by the Surface Transportation Board.


19 thoughts on “Watco purchases lines in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ontario from CN (updated)

  1. Yes, map is wrong. But the “2nd” Ashland is Bradley, not Tomahawk. That is where the Junction is. Tomahawk is a bit south of Bradley and only hosts the N-S ex-MILW line.

  2. Am I alone in wondering what has happened to the Trains magazine cartographers? Putting Tomahawk as Ashland and mispelling Escanaba are the most recent evidence of a lack of precision. Classic Trains had a map on the trans-lake railroad ferries on Lakes Erie and Ontario that completely turned around the names of the Canadian ports. Accurate maps were always a tradition at Kalmbach, but lately not so much.

  3. Until U.S. citizens are allowed to travel to Canada, the Agawa Canyon Tour Train might have a difficult time being profitable.

  4. If the Michigan Gov. Whitmer gets her wishes and shuts down #5, we are going to see a heck of a lot of gas coming by rail into the upper peninsula. Watco might do well.

  5. The map says “Ashland” where is should say Tomahawk. Speaking of which, I wonder if G&W would sell Watco the old Marinette Tomahawk & Western; I had thought perhaps Tomahawk Rail would get all that trackage.
    Why is CN keeping the Milwaukee & Northern north of Kiel? Obviously at least some of this trackage will be placed in WSOR.

    1. Why would they keep the Manitowoc Sub 1 train each way per day + Kiel turn and 1 day yard job, or L’Anse Sub 3% grade and only 2-3 day per week service on 10 mph track, or branch line from Powers to Quinnessec, MI, or Withrow-Dresser branch line used only by a tourist railroad and CP ballast train extras as needed? It will take millions to fix B/O OOS trackage north of Mellen, near Highbridge, the bridge washouts, east of Rhinelander to Goodman, White Pine line and Prentice-Ladysmith OOS for years and no customers! Mostly just log loading/pulpwood cars, paper mill traffic and occasional LPG tank customers here and there on many of these branches. Talking 1 train per day, 5 days per week or as needed type locals, although traffic ‘over the river’ in GB is good with P&G, Green Bay Packaging, GP, JBS, a few elevators, Jacquet Lumber and Schreiber’s get cars. Tremendous potential for futur growth, but much work to be done from scratch to start up at WC 2.0 Glad CN is finally selling these lines off, not sure why they would keep anything north of Neenah or Green Bay, as it’s a shell of what i was under CNW or WC in GB, Gladstone, etc. Hope they name it something to honor northern Wisconsin, such as Wisconsin & Northern or Central Wisconsin Railroad, etc. CN interchange traffic will increase greatly in the future!

    2. WATCO is well suited. They started out on some former AT&SF lines on the epynomous Southeast Kansas RR that had less than 200 annual carloads. It’s now part of the South Kansas & Oklahoma and is doing well. I worked for WATCO a couple of decades back in their contract switching division and in EVERY case we helped double or triple production.

    1. Agreed. This report was not Helton knowing which routes were sold in Wisconsin.

    2. Agreed. This report was not helpful knowing which routes were sold in Wisconsin.

  6. Non PSR. They service the customer when the customer needs it, and has people to talk to the customer about their needs. One on One. Prob non unit train traffic from one that needs a switch once or about a week

  7. So how do WATCO and G&W and other “short line” operators, who are really big railroads with multiple unconnected divisions, provide the kind of service and local interactions that Class 1s were incapable of and grow business operations? It would be a really interesting article.

    1. Shoe leather. Almost every story about short lines in Trains features a local general manager who spends time with the railroad’s customers understanding what they need and how they want to get it. They are close to the ground and learn what transportation needs are underserved or not served at all and develop solutions for existing and potential customers.

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