Some friends of mine in the railroad business now question the viability of CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern as going concerns. One such person awoke the other night with brain spasms. Holy moly, he thought, veering in and out of sleep, Virginia and West Virginia in 2016 are beginning to look a lot like Pennsylvania in 1960. Back then, Pennsylvania railroading was defined by the movement of coal. Anthracite was dying, and Erie, Lackawanna, Lehigh Valley, Jersey Central, and Delaware & Hudson all tried to recast themselves successfully as merchandise railroads. None succeeded (which should give folks in Jacksonville and Norfolk pause). And we all know what happened to the 800-pound gorilla in that state, the Pennsylvania Railroad.
Now CSX and NS are being drawn into that same struggle, thanks to the collapse of their lucrative coal markets. Both railroads appear to see the intermodal business as their salvation. But at the same time, these railroads must also rationalize their networks or drown in avoidable capital and operating costs. For instance, what is the excuse for having two mostly double-tracked railroads crossing Virginia on an east-west axis? (Out west, BNSF Railway and Union Pacific have stranded assets of their own.)
How the eastern railroads come out of this I’ll leave for another day. Right now I want to talk about Amtrak. Amtrak, you say? What’s it got to do with coal? A lot. Here are three possible accidental victims of coal’s demise.
California Zephyr. I rode the Zephyr from Chicago to Glenwood Springs, Colo., just three days ago. It was dark by the time we crossed the Mississippi River into Iowa. But the next morning after breakfast, leaving Denver was again one of those experiences you live for. Over 185 miles and almost seven hours I stayed glued to the tall windows in the Sightseer Lounge, unable to take my eyes off the scenery and the wildlife that inhabits it: South Boulder Canyon, Coal Creek Canyon, Fraser Canyon, Byers Canton, Gore Canyon, Glenwood Canyon—and for much of the time, the icy headwaters of the Colorado River.
But listen up: The Union Pacific route we took out of Denver is about two mine closings from being an ultra expensive-to-maintain, worthless vestige that UP cannot afford to retain in its present form. Already, coal traffic down 28 percent on this line in January from a year ago, according to UP filings with the Surface Transportation Board. Were the mines around Steamboat Springs (on a branch north of the line Amtrak uses) to shut their operations, the economic justification for keeping the Denver-Salt Lake City route intact collapses. Mines in western Colorado, around Grand Junction, can be served by sending trains west to Salt Lake City and then east on UP Overland Route.
The California Zephyr could easily enough be run via Cheyenne and Green River, as could BNSF trains that run Denver to Salt Lake City on trackage rights.
So I say, if you’ve been thinking of riding this train, do so this year. Long term, the future of this train through Colorado’s Rocky Mountains is clouded.
Silver Star. Between the town of Selma, N.C., and Savannah, Ga., more than 300 miles, this New York-Miami train veers west, to ply the route of the former Seaboard Air Line, through Raleigh and Hamlet, N.C., and Columbia, S.C. Though equipped with Centralized Traffic Control (a heritage of SAL days) and good for 79 mph in places, it is not a major CSX freight corridor, the north-south traffic using the former Atlantic Coast Line through Fayetteville, N.C., and Florence and Charleston, S.C. Most of the freight traffic on the Seaboard side is coal. Oops, did I say coal?
Now maybe you see the problem. Sooner or later, like it or not, CSX will rationalize its system. Actually, it has already begun that transition, relegating the former Clinchfield Railroad, a one-time coal corridor, to the status of a train-a-day branch line. I think the Seaboard line (the S Line to we in-the-know folks) may soon get the same treatment.
What does that mean to the Silver Star? Possibly, it could be combined with its New York-Miami twin, the Silver Meteor. At least former Star riders would get their dining car back—or would they?
Cardinal. This Chicago-New York train utilizes CSX from suburban Chicago to Clifton Forge, Va., 710 miles. Then it pops onto the Buckingham Branch Railroad from Clifton Forge to Orange, Va., 125 mountainous miles, before joining Norfolk Southern for the ride to Washington, D.C.
Buckingham Branch leases this trackage from CSX, and its economic viability go up and down based on the number of empty westbound coal and grain trains CSX runs over it between Richmond and Clifton Forge. BBRR collects traffic rights fee for every train. CSX has its own single track, CTC-equipped line between these points, cleaving to the James River. Today, with traffic down, does CSX really need the Buckingham Branch in order to relieve congestion on its James River main line. I think not. Were CSX to move empty unit trains to the James River, Buckingham Branch would have its props pulled from beneath it.
I raised this point with BBRR’s chief executive, Mark Bryant. He replied: “Yes, the decline of coal has certainly had an impact on us. We’ve made adjustments and are doing fine.” Further, he does not anticipate CSX taking those empty unit trains off of his railroad, implying that it would be impractical for CSX to put everything on the James River line. Given all this, Bryant does not see the Cardinal being at risk over his railroad.
I know and admire the Bryant family. But as I said, CSX is going to have to do a lot more rationalizing of its route structure if it expects to survive and thrive. How fast will coal continue to decline? Nobody knows. Therein lies the risk to the Cardinal.
The railroads are valuable for transportation because of their rights of ways. For both passenger and freight it would be a wise investment for the Federal Government to spend money upgrading tracks on many of these lines for expanded freight service by trailer and container as well as long distance passenger service. This would be cheaper and easier than expanding or building new roads, have fewer environmental impacts and would be good for the economy of many of these regions where the economy is suffering from the decline in coal and oil production.