The best little railroad in Effingham

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Friday, July 15, 2011

Engine 2716We cross the Mississippi north of St. Louis and are barreling through Illinois on Interstate 70 when I turn to Tom and say, “Tell me again the name of that guy who owns the Vandalia Railroad.” The Vandalia has fascinated me for years. Every time I pass through this little town (once the capital of Illinois), its sole locomotive, a black SW9, sits silent beside corporate headquarters, the former interlocking tower that once protected the crossing of the Pennsylvania and Illinois Central railroads. Tom gives me a name but adds, “I think you’d be more interested in the Effingham Railroad; he owns that, too.”

The Effingham what? I’d been through Effingham lots of times and have never heard of it. Tom opens his cell phone, and 30 minutes later at the McDonald’s in Vandalia, we drink a Coke and coffee as Charles W. Barenfanger Jr., president of the Effingham Railroad, works on a Slurpee while explaining how he has started two railroads, one from scratch, and is about to give birth to a third.

But first, he corrects Tom. “The Vandalia was sold in 1994, when municipal politics went against me,” he says. To understand that, you need to know that Charlie B is in the railroad business as an adjunct of developing industrial real estate. When Illinois Central Gulf abandoned its 1838-vintage “charter line” through Vandalia in the late 1970s, the city bought several miles of track to serve an industrial park north of I-70 and leased it to Charlie to run. All went well, he says, business growing from 40 carloads a year to 2,000, until a newly elected mayor had the city rezone adjacent undeveloped property from industrial to agriculture. So he moved on, and the Vandalia was sold to Pioneer Railcorp. By the looks of things, business isn’t what it used to be on the Vandalia.

His next venture occurred in Effingham, 30 miles east of Vandalia and a prosperous town of 12,000. Effingham is ideally suited as a regional distribution hub, being intersected by north-south and east-west Interstate highways and railroads, the railroads being heavy-duty mainlines of Canadian National (ex-Illinois Central) and CSX (ex-Conrail). It was there in 1996 that Barenfanger and his partner, Jack Schultz, chief executive of Agracel, an industrial development company, built an initial 400-foot connection to Conrail and christened it the Effingham Railroad, with Charlie its president and Jack the vice president.

By now my Coke is forgotten. Tom and I are hanging on every word. But Charlie is looking at his watch. “I’ve got to be somewhere in five minutes, or I’d give you a personal tour. But I’ll call Luke and he’ll be waiting for you. Real quick, here’s what happened.” The plan was so simple I’m surprised it hasn’t been done recently in many more towns. Agracel bought hundreds of acres nestled in the southwest quadrant of what was then the Conrail-IC crossing and built a 200,000-square-foot warehouse, so big that a track running through it can serve as the railroad’s engine house. Other industrial buildings followed, some of their occupants becoming Effingham Railroad customers. These days the customers number three: the warehouse, a breakfast-cereal company, and a cement company. But the Effingham also stores rail cars, and a bakery is about to begin receiving carloads. The railroad handles 2,000 to 3,000 carloads a year, apparently enough to fuel Charlie’s side business of owning and leasing private passenger cars (yes, he is a train lover as well as train owner).

We bid Charlie goodbye and head to Effingham, where we locate Total Quality Warehouse and are met by one of the railroad’s two full-time employees, Luke Perkins, 24, the other employee being Superintendent Josh Storck, 34, who is on vacation. Yes, the Effingham this week is a one-man railroad. We walk through the warehouse until an ex-Reading SW1200 becomes visible, still bearing its Conrail number, 2716. “Want to go for a spin?” asks Luke. Tom later claims I yell “Yes!” before the question is out of Luke’s mouth. Aboard the locomotive, Luke dons his throttle pack and brings the beast to life. Engine 2716 trots south to the CN interchange, where I get off to take the photo at the top of this narrative. Then we trundle back through the warehouse to inspect what I dub the railroad’s Northern Division. On a side track sits a glistening GP10 bearing a new paint job exquisitely done by Josh and Luke. The engine bears on its flanks the name Illinois Western.

That brings me to Charlie Barenfanger’s third railroad. Fifty miles to the west, on the other side of Vandalia, Charlie and Jack are starting another industrial park on 700 acres near the town of Greenville — served, of course, by this newest of Charlie’s creations. The Illinois Western will connect with CSX nearby and lay three and a half miles of track to reach BNSF Railway. A key selling point will be competitive rail access to the park.

I ask Luke how long he’s been with the Effingham Railroad. Turns out, since high school. Do he and Josh do everything? Yes, he says. Replace ties? Yes. Maintain the locomotive? Yes. When we leave, he says, he’ll give 2716 a wash “because it’s got oil on it everywhere.” Funny, I hadn’t noticed; I guess I’m too used to Class I locomotives.
We say our goodbyes to Luke, and I leave wondering where the Effingham Railroad belongs, in the pages of Trains or in its sister publication, Model Railroader. You could literally build a scale version of it in your basement, without cutting corners. Small this railroad is, but with me it obviously leaves a big impression. — Fred W. Frailey


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