RAVENNA — Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad workers are stopping in Ravenna again after nearly three years of passing through the community.
Local officials are considering plans to accommodate the railroad workers’ needs.
In an email to the Hub, BNSF Public Affairs Director Andy Williams confirmed that railway crews recently began making shift changes in Ravenna.
“BNSF Railway is constantly evaluating operations to ensure we have the best approach for our customers, employees and communities where we operate,” Williams wrote. “In November, we started changing crews in Ravenna and providing crew lodging in Grand Island.”
So, BNSF workers stop in Ravenna and then are shuttled to Grand Island for their layover.
Ravenna had once buzzed with railroad workers and their business. But in December 2016, BNSF announced it would cease its stops in Ravenna. Because of a decrease in coal volumes at that time, Williams wrote in a 2016 email to the Hub, crews could move more quickly between Alliance and Lincoln.
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Williams didn’t address any recent changes in coal volumes in his Thursday email to the Hub.
Though crews are stopping in Ravenna again, they’re not yet making an economic impact on the community.
Railroad workers used to stay at a 118-room bunkhouse in Ravenna near the railroad. They also stopped at all hours of the day and patronized 24-hour food service providers.
But business in Ravenna has changed since the railroaders left town.
Ravenna Super Foods, the community’s grocery store, closed its doors in January. BNSF most recently had contracted with Ravenna Super Foods to stay open 24 hours, seven days a week, according to a 2016 interview with then Ravenna Super Foods owner Paul McDowell. To date, there is no establishment in Ravenna that is open 24 hours.
Also, the bunkhouses where railroaders slept were sold in June 2018 to Cheema Investments of Scottsbluff. Since then about half of the rooms have been converted into 25 apartments, according to Cheema Investment’s business partner Luke Schaneman of Kearney.
Schaneman said 60 rooms still are available for rent, but when BNSF officials visited Ravenna this fall they told him they wanted at least 100 rooms to accommodate their crews.
“They weren’t able to make it work at this time,” Schaneman said, “but we’re hopeful that we can get them back in there someday.”
Schaneman said he would add on to the property, Schaneman Properties, to accommodate BNSF.
“It would be good for the town of Ravenna. It would be good for us. It would just be more convenient for the railroad,” he said. “We would do what it takes to make it work.”
Ravenna Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Gena McPherson said BNSF’s contract for housing in Grand Island is for one year. Until that contract is up, she said she would like to prepare the community for BNSF’s needs. BNSF didn’t provide information to the Hub about the number of workers making stops and the hours they are stopping in Ravenna. Once McPherson knows these numbers, she said she and business owners can put together a proposal for a contract with the railroad.
“This could be huge for Ravenna, but we need to be as prepared as possible when that contract is up to really make a good proposal,” McPherson said.