By John O’Connor
ANNAPOLIS – Maryland is spending up to $300,000 to repair a washed-out Eastern Shore rail line for Tyson Foods – but the state considers the cost chicken feed.
Tyson has said it will maintain production and employment levels at its Snow Hill production center for the next five years in exchange for the state’s assistance.
A Sept. 1 rainstorm destroyed four sections of the 26-mile Maryland & Delaware Railroad connecting Snow Hill and Frankfort, Del. The largest break in the rail line was 200 feet.
The privately owned rail line is a “short-line” operation whose sole purpose is to move grain and chicken feed for a Tyson Foods production center.
The Tyson plant employs more than 1,200.
Without the repairs, Tyson might have moved its Eastern Shore operations, said state officials.
“The thing you’re trying to do is keep your customers competitive on the Eastern Shore,” said David L. Ganovski, director of rail freight service for the Maryland Department of Transportation. “They (Tyson) would not have repaired. They probably would have increased production somewhere else.
“If Maryland becomes uncompetitive, they don’t talk they just walk,” he said.
A statewide drought this year forced Tyson to ship more Midwestern grain to Snow Hill because local growers could not meet demand.
“There’s been such a bumper crop (in recent years) we haven’t moved much grain at all,” said Eric Calloway, president of the Maryland & Delaware Railroad. “We’re only used when they need it. This year, they depend on us tremendously.”
Short-line railroads are the remnants of national railroads that went bankrupt during the 1970’s.
The lines were largely unprofitable for larger companies, but were sold to smaller companies to serve a need in Maryland’s economy.
Maryland has a number of successful short-line operators. The Maryland Midland Railroad, which runs northwest from Reisterstown through Westminster, was one reason Lehigh Portland Cement could build a technologically advanced kiln in Union Bridge.
But, a small-scale operation like the Maryland & Delaware Railroad could not afford the repairs needed in the storm’s wake.
“The revenues that come from 25 miles can’t take this kind of hit from Mother Nature,” Calloway said.
While railroad is often an “invisible” part of the transportation system, in some areas it can be just as important as highways, he said.
The grant money came from a partnership between MDOT and the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development.
State railroad assistance is not unusual Ganovski said: “I think they’re critically important to the economy.”