WATERLOO, Iowa — Dan Sabin stands atop a levee next to the Cedar River and recalls the dark days a year ago when it looked like his Iowa Northern Railway was losing a fight for its very existence against a ferocious flood.
The flood, he said, “just cut the railroad in half.”
The river runs lower today, perhaps 30 feet below the walkway on the flood control earthwork.
But in June 2008, days of rain pummeled the state, pushing the waters to rise quickly and causing more damage than the Great Midwest Flood of 1993. The river’s waters lapped at and sometimes over the top of the Waterloo dike and put a critical section of the INR’s 163 track miles under water.
The swift current cut into a bridge support pier near the middle of the Cedar River, and then tore away a large section of the Union Pacific Railroad bridge that INR depends on.
That severed the short line railroad at that point, adding millions of dollars in extra repairs besides the costs it already faced to fix miles of washed-out tracks.
Before those storms struck, Iowa Northern was growing fast, he said, with hauls of corn, ethanol, distillers dried grain, farm machinery, and a boom in wind turbine parts.
When the flood waters rose, he warned others, “Losing the Waterloo bridge would be the worst that could happen” to Iowa Northern. The worst happened, and there was a risk the INR might not survive.
The railroad has survived, but its recovery from the damage a year ago remains a striking example of the exposure key transportation networks face in the U.S. Midwest, where heavy rains and storms have exacted a heavy toll on the tracks that carry much of the country’s goods across the heartland. It’s also an example of the major funding questions, states, the federal government and railroads face as the rail carriers look at adding track capacity across the middle of the continent even as the existing track demands millions and even billions of dollars in repairs and maintenance.
The Union Pacific Railroad bridge was still cut in two as Iowa observed the June 15 anniversary of the flood this year. But the city recently approved an agreement to reopen the bridge and rail line through a flood control gate, while new federal and state funding means the long-delayed bridge repairs can get under way.
Within months, the lost span will be replaced, Iowa Northern’s rail map will be stitched back together, and its trains can end their long detours that have weighed heavily in extra costs or lost revenue.
Numerous railroads, including most of the majors and a host of small carriers, suffered in the June 2008 storms across the Great Plains. Barging and trucks’ use of highways was also disrupted. But the worst of it, by far, was in Iowa.
Iowa’s Department of Transportation said the state’s rail infrastructure was “decimated.” IDOT listed 17 rail bridges wiped out or heavily damaged, the most costly type of repair for short lines.
Many other facilities in Iowa were also destroyed, including roads and highway bridges. Cedar Rapids, about 50 miles below Waterloo, flooded heavily, and Coralville and Iowa City, another 30 miles downriver, saw many parts of town go under water.
A year later, some of their buildings are still unusable; the University of Iowa in Iowa City tallied nearly $750 million in damages just for its facilities.
The UP and BNSF Railway deployed work crews to knit their systems back together in the flood zone, while detouring cross-country trains around the area. Some later report weakened earnings for the quarter because of extra costs they suddenly had to absorb.
Short lines, however, thrive on local business and can’t simply route their trains around damaged tracks.
The small carrier known as CRANDIC (Cedar Rapids and Iowa City Railroad) had an entire bridge torn out at Cedar Rapids, despite rock-laden railcars stationed on its track to help stabilize the structure.
Some CRANDIC power plant customers did not return to service for months, cutting deeply into that carrier’s coal revenue.
Iowa Northern saw its once-strong corn loadings shrink by two-thirds; its long detours pushed up freight rates on corn to some ethanol plants, and trucks outbid the trains. IDOT estimated Iowa short line damages at perhaps $20 million, and put up $4 million in no-interest loans for their track and signal repairs.
Congress last September approved $20 million in grants to short lines caught by 2008 weather emergencies. It took the Federal Railroad Administration until May 27 to release $15 million of that across several states.
Iowa lines took the largest share. CRANDIC is receiving more than $6.9 million for work on the Cedar Rapids bridge, which was already under way. The new bridge may open at the end of this month.
Iowa Northern gets nearly $2.2 million from the FRA grants. Sabin said that, plus another $1 million just awarded by the state, will cover INR’s portion of the $6.5 million bridge repair, while UP pays the rest.
Contact John Boyd at email@example.com.