West Virginia Department of Commerce Road to Rail

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Road to Rail

By Courtney Sisk

West Virginia is known as the most northern of the southern states and the most southern of the northern states. This ideal location in the Mid-Atlantic region is within a day’s drive of 50 percent of the United States population: a competitive advantage for companies who must get their products to market quickly. Not only that, but the state’s diverse transportation network is often cited as one of the keys to a company’s success. That network is about to expand even further with the opening of the Heartland Intermodal Gateway, a facility in Prichard, scheduled for June 2015.

Huntington, W.Va., is home to the largest inland water port for tonnage in the continental United States. The opportunities that presents, as well as its close proximity to the Atlantic coastal ports including Baltimore and the Port of Virginia, were a factor in the state being chosen. The site in Prichard is close to an interstate corridor, and the Norfolk Southern railroad will run directly through the intermodal facility.

Road to Rail

The Heartland Corridor, which will include the Prichard Intermodal Terminal, opened on September 9, 2010, to double-stacked intermodal traffic. The investment ultimately reduced each container move by approximately 225 route miles and decreased transit times by 48 hours.

Double-stack cars come in a number of sizes, related to the standard sizes of the containers they are designed to carry. Well lengths of 40, 48 and 53 feet are most common. Heights range from 8 feet to 9½ feet.

“When goods come in from South America or Europe, they come in to a coastal port in a Mid-Atlantic state. International shippers and those who import into the United States want to pick the best location to move their goods throughout the United States,” said Doug York, executive director of the West Virginia Public Port Authority. “West Virginia will certainly be a big player because of the Class 1 railroad, as well as our interstate highway system. Those goods coming into West Virginia via the intermodal facility will provide direct service to Norfolk if you are going eastward for an export, and for imports, from Norfolk to the Prichard facility, and all points west, such as Chicago and St. Louis and eventually California.”

West Virginia is part of what’s called the Heartland Corridor, which stretches from the eastern seaboard to Chicago. In 2000, the major rail companies were looking for ways to move more freight with fewer trains. One problem was that several of the tunnels along the Corridor were not high enough to accommodate trains with doublestacked containers. West Virginia had the most tunnels that needed to be raised or the railroad beds lowered or the tunnels notched. The state administered about $90 million of funding from Congress to see that this project of national significance was completed. In doing so, West Virginia’s leaders looked ahead and decided that if the Class 1 railroads were going to be transporting more freight, they wanted to be part of the regional and global marketplace in the movement of goods. Norfolk Southern agreed to help subsidize and build an intermodal facility for the transfer of this cargo from truck to rail.

“One of the many things this accomplishes is removing some trucks off the highways,” York said. “That’s significant in that Congressional highway funding throughout all of the states has been somewhat lacking, but freight continues to be on the rise. That clogs our interstate highways. Without the funding to improve highway systems throughout the 50 states, we have to find ways to reduce that traffic. An intermodal facility does just that. If you can move twice the freight in half the time by rail, that means fewer vehicles are on the highways, thus creating a cleaner atmosphere.” The vision of the Prichard facility is to spur economic growth around the state in the way of warehousing and distribution and supply centers.

“It’s not going to just affect Prichard or Wayne County, and just attracting businesses there. Businesses locating throughout the Kanawha Valley, and points north and south of us, will know that we’re going to be the closest intermodal facility to them. It will cut about 120 miles off their route by using us instead of having to go to a port in Lexington or Columbus. Saving time saves money.”

Road to Rail

“Without the funding to improve highway systems throughout the 50 states, we have to find ways to reduce that traffic. An intermodal facility does just that. If you can move twice the freight in half the time by rail, that means fewer vehicles are on the highways, thus creating a cleaner atmosphere.”

Doug York, executive director West Virginia public port authority

The goal isn’t to focus just on attracting big shippers. Smaller companies that may not do a lot of shipping can also benefit from locating close to the intermodal facility.

“We’re hoping the available properties nearby will be marketed appropriately and everybody will work together to attract some businesses to move to the area, large or small. Small distribution facilities, or a small organization that may ship only 100 containers of goods a month. We will be able to bring them to the area and show that they have a ready-made facility to use right there,” York said. “High-priced electronics and televisions and things like that, those are quick turnarounds and those have to be done pretty quickly, and that’s what makes the truck-torail operation very attractive.”

The Prichard facility is only one part of West Virginia’s transportation network, and York says showcasing the big picture is important.

“West Virginia offers four forms of transportation. We have the river, the interstate system, the rail system, and airports. Some of our big freight movers obviously are FedEx and UPS, which operate out of the airports. That’s how we have to approach. We have to sell all the forms of transportation that would interest companies to want to move to West Virginia.”

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