Downgrading could include turning off and possibly removing the automatic block signal system and not maintaining the track to Class 4 standards (60 mph for freight, 80 mph for passenger). In time, these actions may result in the track on the Columbus Line Subdivision being re-classified as Class 2 track (25 mph for freight, 30 mph for passenger). CSX has yet to announce anything officially.
In anticipation of an announcement, the All Aboard Ohio Board of Directors on April 12 voted unanimously on a policy statement urging regional and state public agencies, authorities and commission “to maintain and preserve the 3C Corridor rail infrastructure in its current condition or better.”
“Local, state and federal officials should be forewarned that there is an uncertain future for this important rail corridor that directly links the largest metropolitan areas in the nation’s seventh-most populous state,” said Ken Prendergast, executive director of the nonprofit rail and transit advocacy association All Aboard Ohio. “The State of Ohio, port authorities and transit agencies in our state have a pretty good record in recent decades of preserving and improving vital rail corridors for the future. We believe that experience should be brought to this important rail corridor, too.”
All Aboard Ohio also has learned CSX may lease the Columbus Line Sub to a shortline/regional operator. Genesee & Wyoming is a likely candidate considering G&W already has a base of operations in Columbus and because CSX’s highest-volume shipper on the Columbus Line Sub is Anheuser-Busch in Worthington, just north of Columbus.
Why is this happening? CSX is saving money by consolidating shrinking rail freight traffic onto fewer rail lines, especially where parallel lines exist. CSX has recently operated about 5-10 trains a day over the Columbus Line Sub, resulting in just enough gross tonnage of traffic to trigger a federal mandate for installing Positive Train Control. The federal requirement for PTC comes into play on rail lines hosting more than 5 million gross tons of traffic annually, or regular passenger service, or shipments of materials considered a Toxic by Inhalation Hazard (TIH).
Installing this interactive traffic control system involves equipping locomotives with transponders and installing trackside communications, power supplies, cables and other features to complete a PTC system. It is costly to install and maintain. All CSX locomotives are being equipped with PTC, so for the 60-mile Columbus-Galion line, this installation is likely limited to a trackside investment. But that investment, which averages about $100,000 per track-mile depending on local conditions, could be a $6 million expenditure for CSX along the Columbus-Galion line.
If it had no other routing alternatives to reach Central Ohio or southern states, CSX probably would make this investment. But they do have alternatives. It can reach Columbus via their Mt. Victory (Greenwich-Bellefontaine) and Scottslawn (Ridgeway-Columbus) subdivisions. And they can reach the southern states by continuing west of Bellefontaine to Sidney, then south on CSX’s Toledo Subdivision to Dayton, Cincinnati and Dixie. Those are high-quality mainline corridors that are being equipped with PTC. There are also high-quality, interlocked (i.e., dispatcher-controlled) track connections in the southeast quadrants of the Ridgeway and Sidney junctions that will permit Galion-Columbus and Galion-Dixie trains to avoid the 3C line south of Galion without much if any infrastructure modifications.
There are several implications from downgrading this section. Not only would this complicate any future efforts to restore passenger rail service on the 3C Corridor, it might also hurt ongoing efforts to get Columbus-Chicago passenger rail service via the Columbus-Marysville-Ridgeway (Scottslawn) portion of the route. It would also put more freight trains into the path of Amtrak’s Cardinal from Hamilton, Ohio to Cincinnati. It could complicate efforts to expand the thrice-weekly Cardinal to daily service. Less freight traffic on the 3C line means more freight traffic on the Scottslawn and Toledo subdivisions. That may mean adding more capacity such as new passing sidings or possibly a longer section of double-track to accommodate new or expanded passenger services.
Less freight traffic could be an opportunity for 3C someday, especially if CSX is willing to sell the Columbus Line Sub to a public entity like the Ohio Rail Development Commission (ORDC) or maybe the Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA). Fifteen years ago, COTA had an agreement with CSX to acquire the Columbus Line Sub as part of a quid pro quo. COTA would build for CSX an intermodal terminal near Marion and CSX would transfer the Columbus Line Sub to COTA for use as the North Corridor light-rail transit. Alas, that deal fell through when Franklin County voters turned down a levy to fund a regional light-rail system.
The North Corridor is Central Ohio’s busiest commuting corridor and 3C Corridor remains as one of the most promising intercity passenger rail corridors in the nation that has yet to gain passenger service. Someday, a passenger rail operator or a public agency on the passenger operator’s behalf could lease the Columbus Line Sub. How much might that cost? Since 2012, Amtrak has leased 85 miles of CSX-owned corridor from Hoffmans, NY just west of Schenectady to Poughkeepsie, NY in five-year renewable terms at $7 million per year. Another possibility is an outright purchase. In 2011, the Michigan Department of Transportation acquired from NS its 136-mile rail corridor between Kalamazoo-Dearborn for $140 million. That roughly $1 million-per-mile price tag is comparable to other recent rail corridor purchases.
If 3C passenger service were already operating on this line, CSX’s pending action to downgrade the Columbus Line Sub could be seen as a threat or as an opportunity. We would be fretting how CSX is endangering the 3C passenger service by threatening to orphan the Columbus Line Sub and dump all the costs of PTC and track maintenance on the passenger service.
But if someone was willing to pay those costs, All Aboard Ohio would be making the case that this portion of the 3C could now be elevated to 110 mph service, and even offer Columbus-Delaware commuter rail in this absence of mainline freight traffic. Indeed, these opportunities will always remain just that — opportunities — until they are achieved or unless the right of way is abandoned and sold off piecemeal.
In the state’s $400 million, 79 mph 3C Quick Start plan that was derailed in 2010 by Gov.-Elect John Kasich, three stations were proposed to be located on the Columbus Line Sub:
- Galion (to be located on Parson Street, south of the historic Big Four Depot that’s on CSX’s busier Mt. Victory Sub);
- Columbus Crosswoods just north of I-270; and
- Columbus Downtown at High Street near the Convention Center.
There also have been 3C plans in the past to establish a station in Delaware on a track that deviates from the 3C mainline located east of town and loops through the center of Delaware. That track is operated as a 6-mile-long passing siding for the Columbus Line Sub. It wasn’t included in the state’s 3C Quick Start project because of travel time and capital cost constraints. It would likely have been included in the state’s follow-on upgrade of 3C to 110 mph that would add more trains, including locals and expresses. But the planning funds for the 110 mph upgrade also were killed by Gov.-Elect Kasich.
Ironically, if PTC was installed on the Galion-Columbus portion, it would provide the type of interactive signal system necessary to allow passenger trains to exceed the federal 79 mph limit. For now, the tracks are probably good for 79 mph but crossing circuits for flashers/gates at road crossings would need to be lengthened for 79 mph speeds at about $50,000 per crossing. There is an average of one at-grade road crossing per mile of track. For 110 mph, additional infrastructure improvements would be needed. To achieve that higher speed, a unit cost of $5 million per track-mile may be applied, or roughly $300 million for Galion-Columbus. But 90 mph might be had for slightly more than the price tag of 79 mph passenger rail service because few additional track or grade crossing enhancements would be needed.
Until 1999, the 3C Corridor had one owner – Conrail. Before Conrail it was owned by Penn-Central (1968-76) which operated the last 3C passenger trains. Before Penn-Central it was owned by and New York Central. Now the corridor is divided among multiple owners. Even among the same owners, it is subdivided into multiple operating lines. The southern half of 3C, south of Columbus, is owned mostly by Norfolk Southern (NS). North of Columbus, it is owned mostly by CSX.
The Columbus Line Sub is only one of three segments into which CSX has divided the Columbus-Cleveland half of the 3C Corridor. North of Galion to Greenwich (23 miles) is CSX’s Mt. Victory Sub that is part of CSX’s overall corridor west to Indianapolis and St. Louis that sees about 30 freight trains a day. North of Greenwich to Berea (40 miles) is CSX’s Greenwich Sub that is part of CSX’s overall corridor east to Buffalo and the Northeast and west to Chicago and has traffic to/from St. Louis. It sees about 60 trains a day.
Berea to downtown Cleveland (12 miles) is owned by Norfolk Southern, as is almost all of the southern half of 3C from Columbus to the north side of Cincinnati. To reach a station near downtown Cincinnati, either CSX tracks could be used to reach Cincinnati Union Terminal or the Indiana & Ohio’s tracks could be used to reach a station near the Boathouse/Sawyer Point area. The latter was the most recent 3C plan.
The longer that a rail corridor is devoid of passenger rail service, the harder it is for passenger rail service to be restored to it. Stations decay or are demolished. Rail traffic patterns change. Ownership changes. And now a significant section of the line may be downgraded. All Aboard Ohio hopes that a new tenant for the Columbus Line Sub will take care of this important rail line until such time that Ohio gains a government that embraces multi-modal transportation policies.