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In August, right before the backup of intermodal shipping containers in the Los Angeles area came to the public’s attention, Norfolk Southern announced it would reopen its intermodal facility at Greencastle, Pennsylvania, about 30 miles north of Martinsburg, West Virginia. The railroad closed the facility in 2019 “for business reasons.”

That sounded familiar. It was the same reason the West Virginia Public Port Authority closed the Heartland Intermodal Gateway at Prichard in 2019. Prichard just wasn’t pulling in enough business to justify continued operations.

Like Prichard, Greencastle was built on one of Norfolk Southern’s intermodal shipping corridors. In this case, it’s the Crescent Corridor, with branches starting at New Orleans and Memphis and running to markets in the Northeast.

Prichard is along Norfolk Southern’s Heartland Corridor, which runs from the port at Norfolk, Virginia, through Roanoke and southern West Virginia across the Ohio River to Portsmouth, Ohio, and north to Columbus and then on to Cincinnati or Chicago. Double-stacked trains are common on the corridor, but they no longer have a reason to stop at Prichard. Even before 2019, they had little reason.

The Greencastle facility opened in January 2013. Prichard opened in late 2015.

Greencastle is along Interstate 81, one of the major truck routes in the United States. It’s 80 to 90 miles from Baltimore, depending on the route, and about 90 miles from Washington, D.C. It’s situated in a prime spot for truck-train intermodal transport.

“With strong growth in volume driven by e-commerce and a recovering economy, we believe the timing is right to bring our Greencastle facility back online,” said Alan Shaw, Norfolk Southern’s chief operating officer, said in August when announcing the Greencastle facility would reopen.

Prichard, on the other hand, is much more than 90 miles from a major metro area, and it’s not along a major truck route.

The facility at Prichard was built after most of its potential clients had already established their shipping routes. The Heartland Intermodal Gateway wasn’t enough to change most of those potential clients’ shipping patterns, and it wasn’t enough to attract amounts of new investment that would have justified its continued operation.

The intermodal facility was a good try, but it just didn’t have the market to keep it alive.

Meanwhile, coal is making a bit of a comeback on Norfolk Southern’s system because the market is improving. From what Shaw said last week and what others have said, the market would take more coal if so many mines hadn’t shut down when the market went sour a few years ago.

“There just has been a severe under-investment, frankly, in anything that generates our BTUs over the last 18 months,” Shaw said when Norfolk Southern executives had their quarterly call with stock analysts.

“The export market, prices are at record highs. China, the early indications are that China will need to import more coal next year than it did this year. It’s China’s trade tensions with Australia are certainly driving some of the demand and higher prices. But China hasn’t shown any indication to unwind that. …

“You take a look at, in the utility market. Coal burn is up 73 million tons this year, but coal shipments are up 16 million tons. So that kind of tells you what’s going on there. Stockpiles, at least in our region, are down 55% year-over-year. So there just is not enough production to satisfy the demand with all the geopolitical issues that are going on.”

Jim Ross is development and opinion editor of The Herald-Dispatch. His email address is jross@hdmediallc.com.

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