West Virginia and its Railroads Pondering Next Moves in a World of Declining Coal Production

The news over the past year for railroads that serve West Virginia has been bleak. Coal mines have closed and Norfolk Southern and CSX have mothballed routes that primarily serve as conduits to move coal to market.

CSX is in the process of closing its division headquarter in Huntington, West Virginia, and transferring its staff to other division offices.

In an analysis published by Trains magazine, railroaders based based in the Mountain State said they continue to brace for further cutbacks.

West VirginiaThe slippage of coal business has other worried in West Virginia, too, because so much of the state’s economy is built on black diamonds.

State officials are talking about the need to diversify the West Virginia economy. Railroads are expected to play a role in that process.

“While we diversity our state’s economy, we must take advantage of our location and existing infrastructure to recruit and develop businesses that rely on rail transportation to move their products,” West Virginia state Senator Bill Cole told Trains. “This includes a manufacturing strategy to revitalize our product output and making our state a warehouse hub for distribution.”

That means that during the current session of the state legislature lawmakers are considering adopting laws to make their state more attractive to businesses. The measures being considered include regulatory reform and right-to-work law changes.

NS and CSX each have taken steps to diversity their traffic bases in West Virginia.

NS recently opened an intermodal complex near Huntington as part of its Heartland Corridor route.

CSX has being routing intermodal trains over its former Chesapeake & Ohio main line between North Baltimore, Ohio, and Portsmouth, Virginia

However, Trains noted, these trains may be rerouted over the CSX New Castle Subdivision once the railroad finishes its National Gateway Project. Clearance restrictions in Washington are keeping double-stacked container trains from moving through the nation’s capital.

Justin Gaull is the vice president of economic development for the Charleston Area Alliance.

As he sees it, the new NS intermodal center at Prichard represents an opportunity for southern West Virginia to connect its manufacturing and distribution businesses  . . . and perhaps a few businesses could be linked to the facility exclusively via rail using existing rail infrastructure.”

Gaull told Trains that the decline of coal has opened an opportunity for West Virginia economic development officials to analyze the state’s inventory of available rail and land assets that can be offered to attract manufacturing and distribution locations.

But not all of West Virginia’s rail lines are suitable for such activities and some of the coal branches are likely to wind up becoming hiking and biking trails.

In some instances, the rails might remain in place and opened for use by foot-pedaled rail carts, which are quite popular in Austria and Germany.

However, few rail lines in America have been used for those carts. But that may soon change in West Virginia.

Christine Kindern is an extension agent in Raleigh County, which is seeking to convert 15.2 miles of an abandoned CSX route into recreational use.

The line in question is the Jarrolds Valley Subdivision from between Whitesville and Clear Creek.

The Raleigh County Commission and National Coal Heritage Area funded a study that found that converting the rail line to recreational use would boost tourism.

The New River Gorge Regional Development Authority might convert a former C&O coal branch to a museum that would celebrate the state’s coal heritage.

West Virginia has more than 500 miles of branch-line routes that are used exclusively to haul coal.

Many of those miles are facing abandonment although local officials have not given upon converting some of them into other uses to be served by rail.

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