Owners of the South Kansas & Oklahoma short line buy Central Kansas Railway

Tuesday, April 3rd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) _ A railroad that operates in Oklahoma and southeast Kansas has agreed to buy the assets of Central Kansas Railway, which has about 900 miles of track in the western part of the state.

Watco Cos. of Pittsburg announced Monday that it had agreed to purchase the assets of the CKR from its parent company, OmniTrax Inc. of Denver. Watco operates the South Kansas & Oklahoma Railroad in southeast Kansas.

Rail shippers in south-central Kansas who have been critical of the CKR applauded the change, hoping the new owners would improve service and reverse the trend of track abandonment.

Terms of the agreement, which must be approved by the federal Surface Transportation Board, were not disclosed. The deal is expected to close on May 31. The name of the railroad will be changed to Kansas & Oklahoma, or K&O.

Watco officials said they plan a huge building program to improve track in central Kansas, investing a minimum of $55 million in private money over the next 10 years.

``Let's just say that last year the CKR installed 2,000 ties on its 900-mile system. Our plans are to install 65,000 new ties between June 1 and the end of this year,'' said Ed McKechnie, director of governmental operations for the South Kansas & Oklahoma.

McKechnie said he already has met with key policy-makers in Kansas government and is hopeful that a partnership with the state and federal governments will make even more improvements possible.

``We are committed to running a railroad and to providing rail service,'' he said.

That's great news to shippers such as Charlie Swayze, manager of Farmers Equity Cooperative in Isabel, who has been a leader in the fight to preserve rail service in south-central Kansas.

``Rural Kansas cannot afford to lose our rail service,'' Swayze said. ``Abandonments have already cost our counties millions of dollars. It has to stop.''

OmniTrax has abandoned about 300 miles of track since it began operations in Kansas in 1992. Another 240 miles of track currently proposed for abandonment by the CKR will be re-evaluated, McKechnie said.

``I can't promise that some track won't have to be abandoned eventually,'' he said. ``But we will be taking another look.''

One piece of CKR track proposed for abandonment, the Wichita to Garden Plain line, isn't included in that re-evaluation, however. That line was not part of Monday's deal.

The Kansas Rail Users Association and the city of Kingman have filed protests of the abandonment, saying a proposed alternate route to provide service to shippers west of Wichita is not practical.

The Surface Transportation Board is expected to rule later this month on the issue.

Watco Cos., which also operates short-line railroads in southwestern Missouri and northeastern Oklahoma, has experienced business growth of about 12 percent a year for the past three years, McKechnie said. He said the company's goal is to increase business 10 percent per year on every rail line it serves.