The Modesto and Empire Traction Co. has run freight trains for local industries for more than a century. It now has a $12.2 million federal grant aimed at safer and cleaner operations.
The railroad runs in and near the vast Beard Industrial District, near Modesto’s southeast corner. It has 35 customers, mostly food and beverage companies at the core of the Stanislaus County economy.
The grant will retrofit two locomotives with low-polluting components and upgrade 22 locations where streets cross the tracks. The railroad must provide a match equal to 30% of the award.
M&ET has a five-mile main line between downtown Modesto and Empire and an additional 49 miles of track looping through the industrial park. It passes several streets in the airport neighborhood.
“There’s constant movement here, and there’s constant interaction with the public at these at-grade crossings,” said Jared Martin, vice president for operations. He spoke Thursday at the McClure Road headquarters for M&ET.
The grant was one of 70 announced Sept. 25 by the Federal Railroad Administration, totaling $1.4 billion. Two others were in the Central Valley, for passenger rail in the Sacramento and Bakersfield areas.
The grants are part of the $1.2 trillion infrastructure package signed by President Joe Biden in 2021. The specific source is the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements program.
“Under President Biden’s leadership,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a news release, “we are making historic investments in rail, which means fewer accidents and delays, faster travel times and lower shipping costs for the American people.”
M&ET will learn the timeline for the engine and crossing upgrades at a meeting with the FRA in the next two weeks, Martin said. The grant also will add about 1,000 feet of track in the “transload area,” where trucks pick up livestock feed shipped by rail from the Midwest.
Links to two major railroads
M&ET feeds into two of the nation’s largest freight systems. The Union Pacific Railroad connects in downtown Modesto. The Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway does so in Empire.
Rail uses far less fuel than trucks, and it is ideal for local products with long shelf lives. Del Monte Foods loads boxcars with some of its canned peaches, pears and apricots. So does Stanislaus Food Products with its canned tomatoes. E.&J. Gallo Winery is a customer, too.
Frito-Lay fries up Doritos, Cheetos and other corn snacks with grain and oil brought by rail from the Midwest. Bunge Oils does the same for its various culinary items. Another rail shipper, Nestle, makes condensed milk here.
M&ET also serves businesses that supply packaging for this array of food and drink. Silgan produces steel cans. Plastipak and Graham Packaging do plastic containers. Boxes come from Pacific Southwest Container, Georgia-Pacific and International Paper.
Passengers once road these rails
M&ET was founded in 1911, mainly as a passenger service between Modesto and Empire. It has been solely freight since 1917.
Today, the railroad employs 40 people, operating around the clock six days a week. Trains as long as 110 cars come off the UP and BNSF lines. The staff is adept at using its locomotives, known as switchers, to assemble trains bound for elsewhere.
These locomotives can go up to 20 miles per hour, vs. the 79 mph on the UP and BNSF. “We’re not about speed,” Martin said. “We’re about constant back and forth.”
M&ET has 11 locomotives in all. The two awaiting upgrades are Tier 0, the worst on the federal air-pollution scale. The others are either Tier IV, the cleanest, or Tier III. They will handle more loads during the retrofit, expected to take a year.
The two locomotives needing overhaul, both built in 1968, will travel on BNSF tracks to Western Rail Inc. in Airway Heights, Wash.
Along with aiding local air quality, the grant will help M&ET meet a California mandate on global climate change.
“It’s going to be hard for short-line railroads to survive without that kind of funding,” said Dillon Olvera, president and CEO at M&ET and at the sister company that owns Beard.
The 22 road crossings already have the lights, bells and cross-arms typical of such locations. The upgrades will be mostly to the high-tech communications between the trains and this equipment. M&ET has four other crossings that already have the improvements.
Other rail grants in Valley
These other grants were awarded to Valley applicants in the latest FRA round:
$209.9 million went to a Kern County corridor that serves Amtrak San Joaquins and freight trains now, and possibly high-speed rail later. The money will build six grade separations, where roads go over or under the track, in and near Shafter. High-speed rail construction to date is from just north of Shafter to Madera. The planners need several billion dollars more to reach Merced and Bakersfield, allowing the first passenger service.
$42.5 million was granted to the Amtrak Capitol Corridor, which operates mainly between Sacramento and San Jose. One of the daily round trips goes east to Roseville. The grant will bring that to three.