Rail investment trend in Iowa still going strong

South Amana locomotive maintenance shop latest example

Locomotive machinist Brad Mayo walks to the other side of a locomotive at the Iowa Interstate Railroad's locomotive main
Locomotive machinist Brad Mayo walks to the other side of a locomotive at the Iowa Interstate Railroad's locomotive maintenance and repair facility near Homestead. The new $19 million project opened on Oct. 25, making it the latest in investments national rail companies are making in Iowa. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

When the Iowa Interstate Railroad moved into a new $19 million locomotive maintenance shop and crew change center near South Amana on Oct. 25, it marked the latest example of private capital investment in Iowa's rail infrastructure.

National, regional and local railroads operating almost 3,400 miles of track have invested close to $1 billion in the state since 2007. While some of the investment is related to replacing bridges and track destroyed by the 2008 flood, the largest percentage involves ongoing investment in infrastructure.

Union Pacific, which operates nearly 1,400 miles of rail line in Iowa, invested $540 million in Iowa between 2007 and 2012. The Omaha-based company made capital investments for branch line upgrades, east-west corridor capacity improvements, communication and signal improvements, ethanol- and grain-related projects, the growing wind turbine market, and major projects such as a new double-track bridge near Boone.

BNSF Railway, a subsidiary of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp., operates 673 miles of rail line in Iowa. The Fort Worth, Texas, carrier invested $61 million in Iowa last year, according to Amy McBeth, regional director of public affairs for the railroad.

"We feel it's important to note that railroads invest their own money in capital improvement projects," McBeth said. "We do not get a fuel tax subsidy like the nation's highways."

The 30,000-square-foot Dennis H. Miller Locomotive Maintenance Works, named for the president of the Iowa Interstate from July 2004 to April 2012, replaced an outdated facility, according to Andrew "Butch" Reid, Iowa Interstate chief mechanical officer-locomotive.

"We outgrew our building in Iowa City, which was not even a one-stall barn," Reid said. "When we would pull one of our new GE ES44AC locomotives in for an inspection, we had to do the tests with one door open because the locomotive wouldn't fit in the building.

"We have to test every locomotive every 92 days under Federal Railroad Administration regulations and we average two to three tests each week. We are working toward doing everything in house so we have more control over how long an engine is out of service.

"A lot of the stuff we do now had been outsourced to National Railway Equipment in Silvis, Ill. It takes a day to get an engine to National, a couple of days for them to do the work, and another day to get it back."

Reid said the new shop is designed to service up to four 4,400-horsepower locomotives at a time. It features fueling and sanding stations, a locomotive wash bay, overhead cranes and illuminated underground walkways.

Iowa Interstate employs about 40 workers at the facility, including locomotive machinists and electricians, car repair specialists, and track and structures personnel. Reid said there are currently two shifts in operation, which could be increased to three shifts with the hiring of additional workers to handle more work.

"We built the shop so we could handle additional work without having to physically expand it," he said. "There's a lot of concrete and steel in the facility. Each of our GE locomotives weighs 432,000 pounds, and we can remove the shell from the engine with a 35-ton overhead crane."

Iowa Interstate built a rail yard on the 62 acres of former farmland to serve the new shop, enabling employees to move locomotives off and on the main line. The railroad also operates a maintenance shop in Council Bluffs.

"We're outside of town, so we won't be blocking crossings and upsetting the citizens of Iowa City," he said. "We have a larger break room, more room for parts storage and a more modern facility that will serve us for many years to come."

The Iowa Interstate, which operates 600 miles of track between Council Bluffs and Chicago, is a subsidiary of Pittsburgh-based Railroad Development Corp. The regional railroad, which hauls grains, metals, machinery, chemicals, plastics, forest products, aggregates, consumer goods and intermodal, connects to all major Class 1 carriers.

Reid said the Iowa Interstate, founded in 1994 from the remains of the bankrupt Rock Island Railroad, continues to look for growth opportunities with new customers and markets."It's our job in the mechanical department to give the railroad the power to move products," he said. "As the company continues to grow, we will continue to make locomotives available when they are needed." 

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.