FEDERAL GRANT: The Madison Railroad received a $1.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce to improve 4.7 miles of railroad tracks, including these tracks leading to the Meese Orbitron Dunne building. (Staff photo by Ken Ritchie/kritchie@madisoncourier.com)
FEDERAL GRANT: The Madison Railroad received a $1.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce to improve 4.7 miles of railroad tracks, including these tracks leading to the Meese Orbitron Dunne building. (Staff photo by Ken Ritchie/kritchie@madisoncourier.com)
Upgrades to Madison's railroad tracks will move forward with the help of a grant awarded to the city from the U.S. Department of Commerce.

U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker announced last week that the Economic Development Administration awarded a $1.6 million grant to the city, to fund upgrades to critical railroad infrastructure.

Madison Railroad CEO Cathy Hale said the grant will help to continue upgrades and improvements planned as part of a long-term infrastructure improvement program for Madison Railroad, which began in 2010.

The railroad has already upgraded bridges along the 25-mile short-line route between North Madison and North Vernon, and the next upgrade to the tracks will help to bring rail cars with heavier loads into the area. The grant will pay to replace 4.7 miles of track south of the Jefferson Proving Ground to an area near the Meese Orbitron Dunne manufacturing building on Cragmont Street, Hale said.

The current railroad track - a 70-pound rail - is considered to be very light in the industry, Hale said, and rail cars cannot exceed a 263,000 pound weight limit.

"We aren't able to meet the requirements to handle the heavier cars right now," Hale said.

The upgrade to a 115-pound track will allow rail cars with a total loaded weight of 286,000 to travel to the Madison area.

Meese Orbitron Dunne - a plastics design and manufacturing company - depends on rail cars to bring in plastic pellets that are melted down into plastic products, company president Robert Dunne said.

"We bring in several cars a month," he said, and an upgrade to the railroad, which runs near the manufacturing building, was needed to ensure the company could continue to receive materials as it has for dozens of years.

The upgrade will allow the company to continue to grow product lines and add positions, he said.

"We are creating new products all the time," Dunne said.

The company also continues to add to the 110 employees working at the Madison facility to support an expansion a few years ago, he said.

Pritzker wrote in a press release that the current track has caused pricing issues for local businesses and limited the city's ability to receive products, which will be resolved with the new track.

"The Obama Administration is committed to improving our nation's infrastructure, which is crucial for both creating jobs and remaining competitive in today's global economy," Pritzker said in the release. "The EDA grant...will help Madison make railroad infrastructure upgrades necessary to both grow local businesses and attract new businesses to the region."

Hale said the new track will help attract businesses to the area once the upgrade is complete. When companies look to come to the area, officials will be able to highlight the railroad services.

After the upgrade, the route will be ready to handle any kind of rail transportation a company might need.

"We will be able to handle whatever may come our way," she said. "It'll be a great economic development tool."

Nathan Hadley, executive director of the Jefferson County Industrial Development Corporation, said the railroad route provides companies another option of receiving and shipping materials to the area, instead of depending solely on commercial vehicle transportation.

"Having Madison Railroad here in town is a big asset," he said, plus the short-line route from North Vernon provides customer service not often available on main lines.

While the need for rail services depend on the company and the industry, Hadley said nearly 25 percent of economic development leads he receives from the state list rail services as a requirement.

"It provides companies options a lot of times," Hadley said. "To certain types of businesses, it's an absolute must."

Hale said the city and railroad had been working on the grant over the last year. She hopes the project might be completed this year, but the project might have a spring completion depending on the bid and construction timelines.