Rail line allows ATCO to be ready for market rebound

In light of volatile worldwide lumber prices, one Fruitvale-based lumber company has taken some of the uncertainty out of the equation.

In light of volatile worldwide lumber prices, one Fruitvale-based lumber company has taken some of the uncertainty out of the equation.

Two years ago ATCO Wood Products Ltd. (ATCO) — a local, family-owned business — began to secure the principal avenue of delivery for their product.

One year ago they obtained financing from Columbia Basin Trust and purchased the working end of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe rail line, owned at the time by a private company.

This year, thanks to the acquisition, the sawmill is better positioned to take advantage of any wood market improvement and ensure they get their softwood veneers to the U.S. and B.C markets.

As the only users of the new line — which runs between Fruitvale and Columbia Gardens to the interchange near Teck — ATCO had decided to take a proactive approach to securing their primary mode of transportation to their markets, said Scott Weatherford, CEO of ATCO and International Railroad Systems.

“(The decision) to purchase the line has worked out well, which is kind of a validation that it was certainly the right decision,” he said.

“We recognized it was a real key to our business. Had we never bought the line there would always be that question out there of ‘Is it going to be there tomorrow or not?’ Right now, that is at least in our control.”

And with 50 employees currently working at the mill, there is some responsibility to continue to provide jobs.  ATCO also wanted to ensure the line would be there for the future, Weatherford explained. As a result, they have been investing heavily into the track structure: putting $250,000 into new rail ties; bridge infrastructure; ground upgrades; and vegetation control.

“That line is pretty critical,” said Weatherford. “Our product is such that it just doesn’t lend itself well to shipping by truck. We just really need rail and all of the advantages that come with rail to be competitive in Oregon and Washington and those markets.”

The wood industry is still in tough times and is reliant upon on the U.S. housing market to be really strong.

“As long as the housing market continues to be in the tank there will be tough times for (the wood industry),” he said, adding that when it changes they will be ready.

The original rail line that ran through Fruitvale was put in during the late 1800s, going north all the way to Nelson.  The line has been abandoned in the past, and some sections were decommissioned, like sections of the line near Nelson.

Right now the end of the line is the mill in Fruitvale, with the working portion going from Fruitvale down to Columbia Gardens where it interchanges with Kettle Falls Railway. At that point ATCO’s cars — carrying softwood veneer for plywood mills — are picked up and taken across the border towards Spokane where it interchanges with OmniTrax.