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Virtual Spec Building in Union City, TN

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UNION CITY, Tenn. - Twenty-six years after Brent Lee left Union City to go railroading, he is coming home to run his own short line.

The Union City Terminal Railroad is expected to debut in May. The line is an eight-mile stub of the former Gulf, Mobile & Ohio Railroad main line between Union City and Rives, Tenn., where it connects to the Canadian National (former Illinois Central) main line.

"I was born and raised in Union City," Lee says. "I always had the idea if I ever wanted to short line something, it would be that line."

Lee says he spent 24 of his 26 years with the Burlington Northern and BNSF Railway in track maintenance and train service.

Lee is operations vice president for the Indiana Business Railroad of Evansville, Ind., a privately held company composed of railroad veterans in specialties ranging from civil engineering to locomotive and car repair.

"We can survey, engineer, construct a railroad," Lee says. "Operate it and maintain it. Pretty much anything we need to do."

The company owns six miles of track between Fort Branch and Owensville, Ind., but Lee says the Union City Terminal is the company's first short line operation. Lee knows the history: the GM&O crossed the IC at Rives. The Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis Railway crossed the GM&O at Union City. The depot that served both lines still stands in the town.

"Growing up there, it was extremely busy. The GM&O had a local station, but then [business] slowed down a bit," Lee says. "My dream is to bring it back to what it used to be, where we have the Union City switcher back in town, providing service for all the customers for whatever they need."

There are several on-line industries, including a grain elevator, and tire and plastics manufacturing plants. Lee says the line carries about 2,000 carloads per year. Until now, it's been a branch of the Class I railroad. He said he approached CN about leasing the line in February, and CN agreed.

"We're working with all the customers to go over existing business, based on working in partnership with CN," Lee says. "We're going to increase personalized service. We're able to offer them multiple switches and a terminal operation, so we're their personal short line."

Word is spreading to other businesses in town. Lee says the railroad wants to increase its transloading business, which has drawn the attention of prospective off-line customers that have never used rail service before.

"That's been exciting. We've had a few new customers pop up wanting to ship by simply approaching them about transloading," Lee says. "I'm having fun. My career's gone full circle, and I'm coming back to do exactly what I wanted to do."

Lee says the railroad is leasing a pair of GP38-2s for motive power.

He bows to history again: "If they get painted, it will probably be back to orange and white." That's the traditional Illinois Central color scheme.