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I-81’s uncertain future: A wider roadway or a steel interstate? (Part Three)

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Robin Chapman, a spokesman for Norfolk Southern, calls the RAIL Solution visionary and ambitious. But he says Norfolk Southern is looking into more practical and achievable short- and mid-term goals, such as the improvement of a freight corridor running from New Jersey to New Orleans. If, however, RAIL Solution were given federal funding to implement its project, Norfolk Southern might consider a partnership.

Train tracks run through the backyard of Modine Manufacturing Co. in Buena Vista. Erin Wilson, who is in charge of distribution, says it would take a lot of money to bring the rail up to date for the company to use. (BECKY BRATU/The Rockbridge Report)

Train tracks run through the backyard of Modine Manufacturing Co. in Buena Vista. Erin Wilson, who is in charge of distribution, says it would take a lot of money to bring the rail up to date for the company to use. (BECKY BRATU/The Rockbridge Report)

According to a study from the state rail department, a single intermodal train, which carries freight in a container or vehicle, can take about 280 trucks off the road. A carload train, a permanent railroad fixture that can be loaded with freight, can take 500 trucks off the road.

The same study shows that, in 2001, the railroads transported 189 million tons of freight to, from, through and within Virginia. At 15 tons a truckload, it would take 12.6 million annual truck trips — or about 40,000 a day — to move that much freight. And, according to RAIL Solution, trucks use about 11 times more fuel than trains.

But the fact that automobiles and trucks are so embedded in American culture makes a paradigm shift all the more difficult, Shearer said. He also believes that the opposition to RAIL Solution is entrenched in the belief that freight can be transported effectively only in trucks running over the road.

“We’re building a transportation revolution from the ground up because the transportation power structure that exists is so ossified and so committed to a mode which is outmoded at this point,” Shearer said. “We’re the tail trying to wag a dog here, and that can be pretty tricky.”

Criticism of the proposed RAIL Solution has come from multiple sectors. A spokesman for the American Trucking Associations said the project was not about taking trucks off the interstate, but about getting tax breaks for privately-owned railroad companies such as Norfolk Southern.

However, Del. Ben Cline of Lexington, a RAIL Solution supporter, says his attempts in the past to introduce tax breaks for rail companies to invest in more intermodal facilities have failed to stimulate growth in this segment.

“That didn’t fly,” Cline said. “It wasn’t enough of an incentive.”

Truck drivers don’t see much of a future in moving freight to rail, either. Shannon Kilgore drives for a company that operates a rail division. He claims that the program helps with some of the longer drives, but that it doesn’t do anything to improve congestion on the interstate.

“It doesn’t really keep us off the road that much because it’s just the long stretches in between, like, say, going from the East Coast to the West Coast being on the rail,” Kilgore said.

Owner operator Robin Steely says he wishes more freight went to rail, but he doesn’t think the infrastructure can handle it.

“You put something on the railroad, sometimes it takes a week to get there,” he said. “With a truck you can have it there the next day.”

But Shearer said RAIL Solution envisions a high-speed infrastructure that would also be implemented for just-in-time services. Trains would be able to run faster than trucks over the hilly terrain of the Virginia corridor of I-81, and truckers’ productivity could improve. Drivers could plan to arrive at a scheduled time and they’d be able to rest on the train — ready to make the final leg of the trip once the train reaches its destination.

“We’re not talking about eliminating any trucking jobs as far as I can see,” Executive Director of RAIL Solution David Foster said. “We’re just saying that instead of the trucker having to drive all the way, the trucker can ride on the train part of the time.”

Some manufacturers along Interstate 81 are reluctant to embrace this alternative for the distribution of their products. Headquartered in Wisconsin, Modine Manufacturing Co. builds some of its heating equipment in Buena Vista. The manufacturer employs several trucking companies that have terminals on or around I-81.

Even though a railroad track runs right through Modine’s backyard, Materials Management Coordinator Erin Wilson said it would take some serious investment to bring the facility up to date.

“It will be hard to sort of reconnect that because we haven’t used it in so many years, but it would be possible to use it for certain shipments,” Wilson said. “For others it would be really difficult because it would take a lot longer to get there.”

Big trucking companies, however, appear interested in transferring their long-haul freight to rail. Chapman said that companies such as J.B. Hunt and other major trucking companies are practically begging the railway corporation to take more of their truck traffic off their hands.
Norfolk Southern is looking into expanding its rail capacity so it can handle more intermodal traffic. The railway company takes 5,000 trucks off the road every day in Pennsylvania, but its infrastructure capacity in Virginia is not at that level yet.

Shearer is more confident than ever that RAIL Solution will be taken into consideration in Congress. Rep. Rick Boucher of the Ninth District of Virginia is proposing a project for the Safe, Accountable, Flexible and Efficient Transportation Equity Act that would provide for a study of the steel interstate. The study would be the beginning of an engineering analysis to obtain a solid estimate of costs for building the infrastructure Shearer is considering.

The availability of economic stimulus money for infrastructure projects, the upcoming federal transportation act reauthorization, and the new administration in Washington offer a unique opportunity for RAIL Solution to sway national transportation policy away from its dependence on highways. Shearer’s hopes now reside entirely with Boucher’s initiative and the latter’s negotiations with Gov. Tim Kaine.

“I am optimistic,” Shearer laughs. “What else am I gonna be? I was one person against Halliburton. You gotta be an optimist to do that.”

Written by beckybratu

August 24, 2009 at 8:28 pm