Rail operator asks feds to run freight trains on Nickel Plate line

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A railroad operator has asked the Federal Surface Transportation Board to allow it to run freight trains on the Nickel Plate rail line in Hamilton and Marion Counties, a move that could thwart plans to convert the rail corridor into a pedestrian trail.

Ohio-based U.S. Rail Holdings has filed a petition asking the transportation board to force the rail line’s owners—Fishers, Noblesville and Hamilton County—to sell the tracks so they can be used to move grain. 

Following the transportation board’s May decision to allow the track's owners to begin rail banking the line to turn it into a pedestrian trail, U.S. Rail filed the petition June 11.

U.S. Rail would use the tracks to transport grain to Indianapolis, its petition reads. It contends that surface transportation board rules favor trains operating on a line over a trail. The freight trains would likely run south of Fishers and north of Noblesville. 

U.S. Rail already operates short rail runs in Indiana. The company operates on a 12-mile segment of track from Marion to Amboy in Miami County that connects directly to Norfolk Southern Railway in Marion.

“USR is growing its presence in other markets by providing a variety of rail logistics services: transloading, private industrial rail car switching, track maintenance services, rail car repair, and rail car storage,” U.S. Rail wrote in its petition.

The rail operator said there is a need for rail service on the Nickel Plate line that runs for 37 miles from Tipton to Indianapolis, and as many as 1,900 car loads of grain could be moved on the line each year, according to the petition. The operator said three businesses with operations along the line also have expressed need for rail service: Indianapolis-based Crown Technology Inc., Arcadia-based Stone Spectrum and Indianapolis-based Quikrete.

And U.S. Rail said it can afford to buy the line and already has a line of credit in place to finalize a purchase.

It’s asking the surface board to allow it to acquire the line before the tracks are ripped out for the trail.

Fishers has already issued a request for proposals for the project. The deadline for proposals is Aug. 17, city of Fishers spokesperson Ashley Elrod said.

“The claims by U.S. Rails and Save the Nickel Plate to ascertain they have the right or authority to purchase the Nickel Plate Rail line is completely without merit,” Elrod said in written comments. “The owners have no intention of relinquishing their rights to develop the rail as a trail south of Noblesville and are moving forward with that intent.”

Noblesville and Fishers announced plans last year to convert 9.2 miles of the line into a trail for bicycles and pedestrians. Meanwhile, communities in northern Hamilton County plan to operate excursion trains on the line. Those trips are expected to begin soon. 

U.S. Rail Holdings has asked the federal board to give it guidance for purchasing the line. The board has yet to make a decision. 

Representatives for Save the Nickel Plate, an organization founded to preserve the railroad, said public officials should have done their
"due diligence" while researching possibilities for the railroad. 

"Railroads provide tremendous benefits to communities who choose to embrace them," Logan Day, a member of Save the Nickel Plate, said in written comments. "Both passenger and freight trains can substantially reduce traffic congestion, provide additional mobility for residents, and derive economic development opportunities to the communities they serve. It is a shame that our elected officials chose not to take the holistic approach of exploring these options in a public forum."

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