Va. SLD: The logic of rail investment

August 12, 2013


It is true the Norfolk Southern Corp.’s intermodal facility project at Elliston, as Cynthia Munley suggests in her July 30 letter (“Keep rail plan sidetracked,” pick of the day), will bring much greater truck traffic to that area (or so the company hopes) from the surrounding locales, perhaps even from a hundred or more miles away. That is the intent.

Continued investment in the Heartland Corridor and the Crescent Corridor along Interstate 81 by Norfolk Southern, Virginia and the federal government actually will benefit the environment as well as the taxpayer by taking long distance trucks off the interstate highway system.

Anyone who drives I-81 is quite aware of the endless line of trucks going both north and south, and having to jockey through them on the hills can be quite hairy at times. Our seemingly never-ending highway construction is partly a byproduct of our lack of investment in the nation’s rail infrastructure, not just Virginia’s.

Locally, the “truck climbing” lane being built between Roanoke and Christiansburg costs $75 million for approximately five miles of highway. One lane, specifically built for truck traffic.

These types of subsidies to the trucking industry nationwide over the last 50 to 60 years have so undermined the ability of railroads to be cost competitive they have abandoned thousands upon thousands of miles of trackage and have been unable to adequately upgrade their remaining network.

In an attempt to arrest this downward spiral, the state of Virginia began assisting Norfolk Southern, CSX and the various short lines with funding in 2005, when, during former Gov. Mark Warner’s administration, the Rail Enhancement Fund was created.

The portion of the Crescent Corridor which runs through the Shenandoah Valley into Roanoke and on to Bristol is slated for multiple siding extensions and improvements so that longer trains can meet one another at closer points, yet much more will be needed to truly modernize the line. Because the railroad is what we refer to as a “single track territory,” a train going north has to share the track with a train going south. This is also true in many places on the Heartland Corridor going east and west, where much of the “double track” that once existed, for example between Roanoke and Crewe, no longer does because one set of tracks was pulled up as freight volumes decreased and it became cost prohibitive to maintain it.

Again, as the highway system was continually invested in by the hundreds of billions of dollars to the great benefit of the trucking industry, that investment had a reverse effect on the rail industry. Here’s a great example of the disparity: When the rails were first laid between Roanoke and Hagerstown, Md., between 1870 and 1882, the roadways were dirt or wood planks, and freight traveled by wagons drawn by teams of horses or mules. In the early 1900s, various forms of hard surfacing were used after the automobile was born. Then U. S. 11 was built in the late 1920s down the Shenandoah Valley and was expanded to three and four lanes over time.

In the 1960s, Interstate 81 was begun and continues to be improved to this day. Meanwhile, that same stretch of railroad from Hagerstown to Roanoke is basically right where they laid it more than 130 years ago, on the same “goat path,” as I like to say. The same curves that restrict speeds to 30 mph in many places, no bypasses built around towns, aging bridges and signals, and short sidings not designed for today’s longer trains. Meanwhile, we debate adding another lane to I-81.

Since railroads move tonnage four times as efficiently as trucks on average, it just doesn’t make sense. Is the Elliston area the best choice in this region for an intermodal facility? I don’t know, but building those facilities and upgrading Virginia’s and the nation’s rail infrastructure will ultimately decrease the number of trucks on the highways, lead to safer highways and less diesel emissions, and cost all of us less in taxes and less for the products we buy.

The preceding letter was written by Pat Corp, the SMART Transportation Division’s Virginia State Legislative Director, and was published Aug. 1 in The Roanoke Times. Corp, of Roanoke, is a Norfolk Southern engineer.