Kevin Williams

The little town that could: Short rail line in Ohio shows the way

Ohio city of Greenfield proves how owning less than 30 miles of train track can stave off economic catastrophe

GREENFIELD, Ohio – Some observers might be tempted to call a little locomotive that chugs through south-central Ohio the “ghost train.”

“If you turn the other way for a second, you might miss it,” said Ron Coffey, city manager of Greenfield, a tiny town of just 4,639 residents.

Attempts to find the train’s schedule are made near-impossible by bureaucracy and security. “Can’t tell you when the train runs,” said Leonard Wagner, vice-president of transportation at Genessee & Wyoming, the company that operates the trains. When asked why, he simply replied: “national security.”

But while the train executives concern themselves with national security, for locals in Greenfield the train only means one thing: job security. In an era when long distance trucking on the interstate network dominates much U.S. trade, Greenfield has shown that a reliance on an old-fashioned railway can actually provide a lifeline to a small community.

Greenfield itself owns the 29.5 mile stretch of rail line – known as a “short line” that connects a string of economically depressed towns in southern Highland County.  According to records kept by the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association (ASLRRA), Greenfield is the smallest municipality in America to own its own rail line.

The situation means that Greenfield – which is situated some 30 miles from the nearest interstate – can still keep itself going as a place that makes goods and gets them out into the rest of the world, preserving local businesses, jobs and a manufacturing base.

According to Amy Krouse, Director of Strategic Communications at the ASLRRA, about 25 of its nearly 550 routes are owned by municipalities, and they represent less than one percent of track. Greenfield is the smallest known municipality to own its own railroad. So Krouse calls Greenfield “pretty unique.”

The story began in 1988 when Greenfield bought a soon-to-be decommissioned section of track and brought it back to life. David Daniels is currently the Director of Agriculture for the State of Ohio, but he served as mayor of Greenfield in 1988 when the village stepped up to purchase the tracks for $2.4 million, most of which was secured through grants. If the track had closed, Daniels said, it would have essentially cut off the area’s manufacturing economy from the rest of the world.

“The cost increase as far as shipping in chemicals and materials would have skyrocketed for the manufacturers. We were looking at it from that standpoint,” Daniels said, explaining why the city stepped in.

Daniels remembered right after the tracks were purchased the community celebrated. There was a dinner train and free rides for those wanting to see whole length of the track that was now part of Greenfield.

The Economic Development Administration has been instrumental in supplying grant money for the rail line.
Kevin Williams

The rail line starts in Greenfield and heads west to Leesburg, where it is used by candle maker Candle-Lite and then onto tiny New Vienna, where Huhtamaki, a maker of picnic products, uses the line. The rail then feeds into the main track near Midland City. From there, Greenfield’s goods can go anywhere in the world.

“We act as sort of a Port Authority, in that we own and operate the rail that helps not just Greenfield but Leesburg and New Vienna also,” Coffey said.

Greenfield owning its own rail line is a throwback to an era when it – and many other smaller American towns and cities – were far more self-sufficient.  “For one thing, we have our own hospital, we had our own power company for a long time, and our school is 100 years old and full of beautiful art,” said life-long Greenfield resident Penny Everhart, who works for a local manufacturing company. 

The city once used to boast not one, but two, train depots. But now, traffic is down to two trains a week and servicing only one company in Greenfield: Johnson Controls, one of the town’s largest employers and a global conglomerate supplying material to the automotive industry. Still, the biweekly train is crucial for keeping alive the hundreds of well-paying manufacturing jobs associated with Johnson Controls.

“The train brings carloads of material to Johnson Controls, where they make car seats. It is most cost effective to bring it in by rail. We are at a disadvantage not having a highway, but having the railroad gives us an asset,” said Coffey.

But keeping the city’s rail line going has not been easy. In 2009, after the auto industry went into a tailspin, Johnson Controls pulled up stakes and vacated Greenfield, leaving an abandoned plant and track. Hundreds of jobs were lost and area businesses that had supplied Johnson Controls also were forced to shutter or lay off employees. The area had already been battered by the closure of a DHL shipping hub in nearby Wilmington in 2008.

For two long years the tracks sat silent, but there was never serious talk of the city unloading its rail line. That would be cutting Greenfield’s only real commercial link to the outside.

“I never heard that ever mentioned, and it was never in my thoughts. It was more beneficial at that time to try to get more jobs back, if we hadn’t worked on upgrading the railroad I am afraid…. I felt like it was monumental to get someone into that building,” said Betty Bishop, who served as city manager from 2009 to 2012.

So instead of abandoning the railway, Greenfield poured itself into saving the line, applying for and securing a $2 million Economic Development Administration grant for improvements to the line. Johnson Controls took notice, and when the economy began to improve, they came back in 2011. And so did the trains.

'Critical' for the economy

When the train whistles started sounding again in Greenfield, it signaled the beginning of the end of the Great Recession.

“When the trains started coming back, you could not believe the talk of the citizens as to how good it was to hear those train whistles. To the residents that live there, that was mighty important for the revival of their town,” said Bishop.

The city of Greenfield leases the line to the Indiana and Ohio Railway, which is owned by Genessee & Wyoming. The city earns revenue from a per-car fee. When Johnson Controls reopened in 2011, approximately 200 railcars came to the plant. That number has increased every year since. In 2014 the city brought in $88,000 in revenue while spending $107,000 in upkeep.

“It’s not quite a break-even situation,” Coffey said. But everyone recognizes the price to pay is small compared to losing all the jobs that come with the rail.

“The rail line is critical. The best way for me to put it is: for a big city with a lot of jobs, the impact of this rail line would be a drop in the bucket. But when you are in rural Ohio, and jobs are so scarce and critical, its impact is enormous,” Bishop said.

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