For advocates of rail transportation, one of the most enjoyable developments is to see a railroad line come back to life. That’s been happening recently to the 270-mile Fort Wayne Line between Tolleston (Gary), IN and Crestline, OH via Ft. Wayne, Lima and Bucyrus. This was one of America’s premier passenger rail lines, linking Chicago and East Coast.
But will a sudden increase in freight traffic to this corridor help or hurt prospects for the return of passenger rail? That depends on how many freight trains and infrastructure improvements are coming.
The Fort Wayne Line west of Dunkirk, OH has been the subject of an initiative by a consortium of online communities to develop passenger rail service between Columbus and Chicago. If they are successful, service may begin with 79-mph trains. As more funding is found, the consortium would upgrade the line to progressively higher speeds.
A rebirth of this line for freight is more immediate. Norfolk Southern (NS) track resurfacing crews have been laboring between Ft. Wayne and Bucyrus since November – a time of year when such work is usually confined to NS routes in southern states. So what has them working in Ohio’s cold? A race to relieve traffic congestion.
As was reported on this blog and more so in the Ohio Passenger Rail News (SUBSCRIBE NOW for a full-year’s worth of news while supporting rail and transit advocacy!), NS is experiencing serious freight traffic congestion on its Chicago Line between Cleveland, Toledo and Chicago where up to 110 trains a day travel. This has also caused horrendous delays to Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited (CHI-NYC/BOS) and Capitol Limited (CHI-WDC).
For the first time in 30-40 years since freight train traffic was consolidated onto the Chicago Line from the Fort Wayne Line and other lines, some traffic is being moved back. The consolidations date back to a different era when railroads were in survival mode. Now the railroads are in a growth mode.
NS improved and continues to improve several lines to accommodate trains coming from BNSF at Streator, IL to NS’s Conway Yard near Pittsburgh. First, NS upgraded the former New York Central (NYC) “Streator Connection” and an ex-NYC Schneider-Indiana Harbor line in 2013 so more trains could bypass congestion in Chicago. Next, NS turned its capacity-enhancing attention to the Fort Wayne Line – the only underutilized rail corridor remaining east from Chicago into Indiana and Ohio.
Once upon a time, this route was the pride of the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR), the “Standard Railroad of the World.” The double-tracked mainline hosted more than 20 passenger trains per day, some at 100 mph (until the federal 79-mph limit went into effect in 1947), mixed in with twice as many freight trains. But later owners Penn Central (1968-76) and especially Conrail (1976-99) moved freight traffic to the route of PRR’s former rival, the former NYC via Cleveland and Toledo.
Conrail incrementally downgraded the Fort Wayne Line. It was single-tracked west of Crestline in 1984. Conrail rerouted Amtrak trains to more northerly routes in 1990. Its signaling system was removed soon thereafter while track maintenance was deferred, dropping train speeds from 70 mph to 10 mph in places.
As part of the 1999 split of Conrail’s assets among CSX and NS, NS gained trackage rights over the Fort Wayne Line (up to 8 daily trains Crestline-Bucyrus; up to 6 dailies Bucyrus-Ft. Wayne). CSX got the Fort Wayne Line west of Crestline from Conrail, but NS dispatches it. NS got the Fort Wayne Line east of Crestline, detoured rail traffic from it and single-tracked much of it.
In 2004, the Chicago, Fort Wayne & Eastern (CFE) signed a 20-year lease to generate shipments from CSX’s Tolleston-Crestline tracks. Today, CFE handles a daily average of about 80-100 carloads of freight traffic.
In recent years, CFE resurfaced the tracks – notably between Ft. Wayne and Bucyrus – with new ties and ballast to operate more consistently at 25 mph although some 10 mph sections remain. However, NS’s crews began working in November 2014 to improve the line further with a resurfacing program, including new ties, track hardware, ballast and tamping. This should allow NS trains to routinely operate at 40 mph.
The first NS trains began showing up on the Fort Wayne Line in early November. Mixed freight trains of 100+ cars got the railfan community buzzing. Then NS ran its Office Car Special – an NS passenger train for NS executives, current and potential shippers plus other VIPs – over the line on Nov. 20 (see video on our YouTube channel).
Next came an army of NS track surfacing crews working at a rapid pace. Then news filtered out that NS was transferring engineers and conductors to crew bases in Mansfield and Fort Wayne to open a crew district between the two cities effective Jan. 15. That’s why the normally warm-weather work was being done between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
According to numerous reports, it appears that NS’s plan is to a run an every-other-day mixed NS freight train (that started in early November) and five daily crude oil trains (to start on or about Jan. 15).
This increased rail traffic is bringing improved track conditions and that may aid prospects of future passenger rail service – to a point. The Fort Wayne Line still has many shortcomings, such as no automatic traffic control system, long sections without continuous welded rails, and a lack of passing sidings. A few more daily freight trains would likely cause these shortcomings to be addressed at the freight railroads’ expense, and potentially reduce the start-up costs of a 79 mph passenger rail service.
However, if freight volumes increased to more than 10 a day, they could tip the scales. If passenger service is added to that traffic, it could require extra capital improvements – especially since speeds higher than 90 mph are desired. Since railroad rights of way are typically owned, managed and financed by the private sector (not the government, as is the case of waterways, roadways and airways) the costs of adding more tracks and advanced signal systems to accommodate a fast passenger rail service are typically the responsibility of its sponsors.
Routes with 100+ mph passenger trains (Chicago-Detroit, Chicago-St. Louis, Harrisburg-Philadelphia, Schenectady-New York City, and the Northeast Corridor) have fewer than 10 freight trains per day. All but the time-sensitive freight can be relegated to nighttime hours when there’s few if any passenger trains. When there’s more than 10 total freight trains a day in both directions on a single-track line with passing sidings, it becomes difficult to confine freight trains to between midnight and 6 a.m.
All of these questions have answers, and the Chicago-Columbus consortium is organizing funding for a Tier 1 Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to get those and other answers. A Tier 1 EIS is required before federal construction funding can be sought for a major transportation project. It will be interesting to learn from this planning work if the rebirth of the Fort Wayne Line will help more than hurt the return of passenger rail.