Startup Wants to Revive ex-Akron Branch

The former Akron Branch as it looked in October 2012 near Stow.

A Norfolk Southern worker has proposed restoring freight service to an out of service former Pennsylvania Railroad line in Summit County.

Jeff White is a founder and part owner of the Hudson & Southern, which would operate the nearly 15-mile line that runs between Hudson and Cuyahoga Falls via Hudson, Stow and Silver Lake.

The line in question has long been known as the Akron Branch and was the first railroad to serve Akron when it was completed on July 4, 1852.

The line was last used by Conrail in 1994 and has since been railbanked.

White indicated his primary business initially would be the storage of rail cars for shippers using NS and CSX.

Most of the line is owned by Akron Metro Regional Transit Authority which bought it in 1995 and railbanked it for potential commuter rail use.

However a portion of the line in Hudson is owned by NS and is still used occasionally by that company to turn equipment on a wye.

Although the H&S is still establishing its business plan, White said longer term his company is considering establishing a transload facility near Seasons Road that would transfer bulk commodities between rail cars and trucks.

White said he has learned of interest by some companies to build manufacturing facilities or warehouses in the Seasons Road area, but they would do that only if there is an active rail line nearby.

“It’s kind of a ‘if you build it, they will come’ kind of thing,” he said.

However, Akron Metro and the residents of Cuyahoga Falls, Stow and Silver Lake have other ideas for what use should be made of the railroad right of way.

Valerie Shea, director of planning and strategic development for Akron Metro said her agency has met with officials in those communities about their interest in developing the land as a hike and bike trail.

“That’s kind of been what we’ve been pursuing a little more,” Shea said.

She said Akron Metro met with H&S officials about a year ago but has not spoken with the company since then.

White said N&S last met with Akron Metro in fall 2019 but the COVID-19 pandemic stalled development of those plans. Work resumed on creating a business model within the past month.

In a best case scenario, White envisions it would be three to four years before trains resume using the line.

N&S will need to work with the Ohio Rail Development Commission on rehabilitating the track.

The railroad would also need to obtain approval of the U.S. Surface Transportation Board to reactivate the line as well as the approval and cooperation of NS and Akron Metro.

White hopes to file a petition with the STB in spring 2021.

Akron Metro would need approval of the Federal Transit Administration before the rail line could be used for a trail.

Shea said she didn’t know how long that process would take.

In the meantime, Shea said Akron Metro is working with all the municipalities along the line to ensure the use of the land is “amenable to everybody.”

She said the public transit agency is willing to consider H&S’s proposal “if it’s vetted through the municipalities that we’ve been working with.”

That could lead to widespread opposition as happened several years ago when another rail operator proposed using the Akron Branch for a dinner train.

White said he knows resuming rail use has been “a touchy subject in the past.”

Since revealing his plans for the ex-Pennsy line, White said he has heard from people concerned about noise and trains traveling past their homes at late hours.

In response, White said modern trains are not noisy, N&S would only operate two to three times a week on weekdays during mid morning or late afternoon.

The trains of five to 12 cars would travel no more than 10 mph and quiet zones could be established in residential areas.

He also said that his company would not be handling hazardous materials, noting the area is not zoned to allow operations that would involve those.

“Most people who live along the tracks are going to be hard-pressed to ever even see the train,,” White said adding that he N&S wants to be a community partner.

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