CSX, Wall Street want a steel wall across Ohio

CSX added a second main track along much of its 350-mile Chicago-Cleveland line in 1998. This track construction view was in New London, OH (All Aboard Ohio file photo).

CSX added a second main track along much of its 350-mile Chicago-Cleveland line in 1998. This track construction view was in New London, OH (All Aboard Ohio file photo).

Imagine how Ohioans would react to a new Ohio Turnpike commissioner seeking to halve the busy toll road from six lanes to three. It would be soundly rejected and the commissioner promptly shown the exit.

An equally zany idea is reportedly being pursued by E. Hunter Harrison, the new CEO of CSX Transportation Inc., one of the nation’s largest railroads. CSX’s spine line is its Chicago-Albany, NY corridor which carries as much gross freight tonnage per year as the Ohio Turnpike.

CSX carries that much freight by operating more than 60 trains a day over any given Chicago-Boston segment. That number may be halved by running trains twice as long as before Harrison’s arrival. To him, that presents an opportunity only Wall Street would like — single-tracking a valuable transportation artery that parallels the Ohio Turnpike west of Cleveland. Ironically, Harrison’s plan would likely clog the Chicago-Albany mainline and send more rail shippers to dial up pavement- and bridge-damaging trucks that use the turnpike and other roads. Each train carries enough freight to fill 250 trucks.

The CSX mainline goes through these and other Ohio cities (from west to east): Hicksville, Defiance, Deshler, North Baltimore, Fostoria, Tiffin, Willard, Greenwich, New London, Wellington, Grafton, Berea, Brook Park, Brooklyn, Cleveland, East Cleveland, Euclid, Wickliffe, Willowick, Willoughby, Mentor, Painesville, Perry, Madison, Geneva, Ashtabula, and Conneaut to name just a few.

However, there are two main differences with the Ohio Turnpike: 1. The CSX mainline crosses hundreds of state and federal roads, city avenues, small-town streets and farm access routes at-grade. 2. CSX’s mainline is a privately owned property and must be profitable to Wall Street’s standards, whereas the Ohio Turnpike is a government-owned property operated for the public’s benefit. It should be noted that CSX’s predecessors did not gain their properties from 19th-century federal land grants. Indeed only 7 percent of U.S. railroad route mileage was built on land grants and nearly all was west of the Mississippi River.

But that doesn’t excuse Harrison who cares more about Wall Street and less about Main Street. He is a pathological, public-be-damned executive straight from 19th century robber baron lore, selected by Wall Street hedge fund managers who dominate CSX’s shareholders and the company’s board of directors.

What he seeks to do with the Chicago-Albany line would literally cut in half dozens of Northern Ohio towns with a steel wall — longer, slower-moving trains up to three miles long that are more susceptible to mechanical breakdowns from burned-out locomotives, broken couplers and frozen brake lines. Northern Ohio businesses, school buses, safety forces and agricultural commerce will also be blocked by long freight trains stopped for tens of minutes or even hours in sidings more than three miles long. There they will wait for opposing rail traffic to clear each 10- to 15-mile single-tracked portion in between sidings. There will be dozens of these sidings across Northern Ohio. Consider:

  • CSX’s Chicago-Albany mainline has 247 route miles in Ohio;
  • This mainline has 259 public and private road at-grade crossings in Ohio;
  • Also in Ohio are 10 critical, busy junctions with other railroads where their rail traffic may be slowed as well;
  • 25.5 continuous miles of CSX mainline through Greater Cleveland have no at-grade road crossings;
  • Excluding Greater Cleveland, there is an at-grade road crossing every 4,500 feet along the CSX mainline in Ohio;
  • Building new taxpayer-funded roadway overpasses / underpasses costs $10 million to $20 million each.

“There comes a point where the national interest must come before Wall Street’s desire for more profits,” said All Aboard Ohio Executive Director Ken Prendergast. “This is one of those cases. Following deregulation in 1980, the nation’s railroads were allowed to eliminate parallel railroad lines to boost profitability. There are only a few trunk lines left and they are heavily used. That means any further reductions in capacity will harm shippers, communities, and rail passengers by negating nearly $1 billion in infrastructure investments along this rail corridor by federal, state and local taxpayers over the last 40 years. Control over this strategically important national asset should not be left to the whims of a management that wants to conduct a fire sale.”

From Greenwich, OH eastward, roughly 530 miles of the 815-mile Chicago-Albany mainline was acquired by CSX during the split and purchase of Conrail’s assets in 1999 by CSX and rival Norfolk Southern. Conrail, by the way, was restored to profitability thanks to hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer-fund infrastructure improvements in the 1970s and 80s. As part of the Conrail acquisition, CSX invested nearly a half-billion dollars of its own capital to add a second main track along the single-tracked portions of the 350-mile Chicago-Cleveland portion.

In the last decade, CSX benefited from $280 million in federal and state funds, including from Ohio, to upgrade portions of this and other rail infrastructure for CSX’s $850 million National Gateway Corridor linking Ohio to the East Coast. The Greenwich-North Baltimore, OH portion of the Chicago-Albany mainline was a beneficiary of some of this public investment. That doesn’t include many millions more spent by taxpayers to build roadway overpasses and underpasses to mitigate the community impacts from freight rail traffic increases since the 1999 Conrail split.

Harrison’s plan is similar to what he did with the less-busy Chicago-New Orleans Illinois Central Railroad years ago. There, he took a two-track railroad mainline with fluid traffic flow, combined its freight trains to make them longer, and then removed the second track wherever possible. For more than a year after single-tracking, the Illinois Central mainline was in chaos. After enough shippers fled the railroad and train dispatchers got a handle on what was left, things settled down on the former “Mainline of Mid-America.”

But Chicago-Albany is a different animal. CSX runs a lot more daily trains here — more than 60 freight trains and up to eight Amtrak passenger trains east of Cleveland and especially east of Buffalo (where state and federal taxpayers are investing $200 million to construct or improve tracks, signals, crossings and stations to make passenger service more convenient and efficient). The route east of Cleveland has been called the “Water Level Route” for more than a century when it was the pride of the New York Central System (the route follows the shoreline of Lake Erie as well as the Mohawk and Hudson rivers). West of Cleveland, the railroad is mostly straight and flat, too. These physical conditions have, no doubt, influenced Harrison to try to squeeze more efficiencies out of this line. But Wall Street’s gain will be Ohio’s pain as this valuable transport asset is diminished at Main Street’s expense.

What can we do?

Get informed: Local, state and national leaders along the route need to learn from professional, independent railroad operations managers and planners what impacts Harrison’s plan will have on Northern Ohio communities, businesses, shippers, safety forces, and road traffic. See All Aboard Ohio’s backgrounder to learn what at-grade crossings and communities would be affected.

Get organized: One city, even one as large as Cleveland, might not be able to force a multi-billion-dollar Class I railroad company or the federal Surface Transportation Board (federal regulatory body that oversees railroads) to positively respond to any complaints. All affected stakeholders need to unite and speak as a single, coordinated voice.

Consider the options: Action steps could include filing a taxpayers’ lawsuit considering the amount of taxpayer money invested into rail-related infrastructure along all parts of this corridor in recent decades. Also, stakeholders should consider filing complaints with the Surface Transportation Board (as Murray Energy just did) which is charged with having a big-picture public interest when it comes to vetting potentially destructive actions by private interests. Lastly, public agencies such as the New York State Department of Transportation, the Ohio Turnpike & Infrastructure Commission and/or others should consider buying significant portions of the CSX mainline and lease it back to CSX or other qualified, competing bidders.

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3 Comments to "CSX, Wall Street want a steel wall across Ohio"

  1. Richard Bullington's Gravatar Richard Bullington
    August 2, 2017 - 3:18 AM | Permalink

    This is insane. Harrison is essentially ceding the old Central Territory to Norfolk Southern. As you pointed out, the old New York Central main east of Cleveland was once one of the premier railroad segments in the world. It was four tracks between Buffalo and Schenectady where it split to carry passengers down the east side of the Hudson and freight down the west. New York State now owns the east side line for commuters and Amtrak’s Empire State service.

    There’s no doubt that NS has the superior route into industrial New Jersey since the Reading/CNJ provide a short-cut for freight straight east from Harrisburg. But what Harrison is proposing will essentially neuter CSX as a viable competitor for Chicago-Port of New York freight.

    Since I’m an NS stockholder I can’t say I’m unhappy about that, but it is the stupidest thing I’ve heard in railroad land for twenty-five years.

  2. Nathanael Nerode's Gravatar Nathanael Nerode
    August 6, 2017 - 10:04 PM | Permalink

    It is completely unacceptable to single-track ANY of the route east of Cleveland, and I assume Amtrak will complain. What can we do to protest this at the STB?

    –Nathanael Nerode
    (upstate NY)

  3. August 29, 2017 - 6:48 AM | Permalink

    Harrison’s installation and cutbacks show that Wall Street is clamoring to profit off of even deeper cuts to railroad workers, even after decades of concessions agreed to by the unions.

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