New auto unloading ramp unveiled in hopes of boosting Mid-Missouri railroad industry

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COLUMBIA - In a ribbon-cutting event on Thursday, the COLT Railroad, along with the Missouri Auto Auction and the Missouri Department of Transportation (MODOT), unveiled a new automatic unloading ramp.

Ryan Williams, the City of Columbia Utilities Assistant Director, spoke at the event and assisted in the ribbon cutting.  He said the unloading ramp will serve a very specific purpose.

“That ramp will allow us to load an unload automobiles from railcars so that we can begin receiving and delivering automotive traffic via rail," Williams said. 

Typically vehicles are transported via trucks on the highway and can take around a week to reach Columbia. Officials from the Missouri Auto Auction says they're hoping the ramp will significantly cut down this time.

"Through this test we were actually able to bring these cars in less than five says," said Kevin Brown, Missouri Auto Auction General Manager. "So we shaved off about a day by bringing it on rail. I don't know if that's going to be an ongoing performance or not, but it was this time. It was about five days."

According to Williams, the city hopes the ramp will create more revenue for the railroad, which saw itself struggling after the railroad stopped transporting coal to the municipal power plant. 

"In 2015, the railroad, it's primary customer was the City of Columbia itself. Water and Light used to use the railroad to import coal. In 2015 in the fall we stopped bringing in coal via the railroad and since that time the railroad has been looking for new business to kind of replace the loss of the coal traffic. "

City Manager Mike Mathes, who spoke at the event, reflected on the struggling utility.

"We had to do a lot of cost cutting which led to trying to accommodate once we stopped burning coal. We were our biggest customer and now we're not our biggest customer, we're hardly a customer at all," Mathes said. 

The acquisition of the auto ramp was made possible by a competitive grant program, through MODOT’s Missouri Freight Enhancement Funds. The COLT Railroad applied for the grant and was awarded the grant in July of this year. Bryan Ross, the MODOT Waterways and Freight Manager, believes the ramp is going to be a financial benefit for people who use the railroad to bring things into the area.

"Whenever a customer is looking to bring products into Columbia they're looking for the most cost-affective way to do this and rail for them is turning out for them to be a better option," said Ross.

The Missouri Auto Auction collaborated with the COLT Railroad for the event. It’s the first local business to partner with the City of Columbia to see the project through.

"Columbia's very fortunate to have the COLT Railroad here in town. By having that, that gives shippers in town another option," said Ross. "So having an additional customer on the railroad is always a benefit and the more customers the railroad has, the more cost-effective it becomes. It serves the community right now, but really it serves the whole mid-Missouri region."