By Leo Ryan, AJOTIn what some industry stakeholders have described as a “game-changer” in North American intermodal transportation, the significant upgrade to the rail route of Norfolk Southern (NS) between the busy Virginia ports and the big Midwest hubs of Columbus, Ohio and Chicago to accommodate double-stack trains is off and running. Whereas such US East Coast ports as New York/New Jersey must now expect greater competition on the Midwest market, the Canadian ports of Montreal and Halifax, too, enter into the picture in terms of retaining or growing business as a result of the advent of the Heartland Corridor.
“This a remarkable achievement, and it marks a notable date in transportation history,” NS chief executive Wick Moorman said on September 9 at a ceremony at the railroad’s recently enlarged Cowan Tunnel near Radford. He added: “The Heartland Corridor’s completion is not an end but the start of an era of new thinking, new resolve, and new optimism in which business, communities and the public sector find creative ways to power the American economy.” “Demand for rail freight service in the US is expected to nearly double by 2035, and that’s on a national transportation network that already is sorely stressed,” Moorman said several days later at a ceremony in Prichard, West Virginia. The federal Department of Transportation has hailed the Heartland Corridor’s impact on reducing highway congestion and fuel consumption while improving air quality and transportation safety. Although domestic intermodal remains a key component of NS strategy, NS officials have indicated that the chief target of the Heartland Corridor is the international ocean containers shipped by ocean carriers wanting to use East Coast ports to penetrate Midwest markets. This goal is based in part on the idea that the planned 2014 opening of the larger Panama Canal locks could attract large container vessels from Asia to deepwater East Coast gateways like Norfolk. With federal and state subsidies covering about half of the $320 million construction costs, the Heartland Corridor is the first of three new double-stack corridors being developed in eastern United States. Within a few years, NS will be putting on stream a Crescent Corridor between the Mississippi Delta and New York. In a huge project with an estimated cost of $840 million, CSX Transportation has launched its National Gateway plan to operate a more efficient rail route linking the Mid-Atlantic with the Midwest – improving the flow of traffic through the increased use of double-stack trains. The public-private partnership is to upgrade tracks, equipment and facilities, and provide clearance allowing double-stack trains to move seamlessly. The latter will carry cargo in standard shipping containers that can also be carried efficiently by truck or ship, CSX has pointed out. With a view to improving Norfolk-Chicago transit times from four days to three by shaving 400 kms (250 miles) from the route, NS raised vertical clearances on 28 tunnels and removed 24 overhead obstacles on a network connecting to the Midwest. The class 1 railway operates some 21,000 route miles of track in 22 states and serves every major container port in the eastern United States. Prior to the upgrade, NS freight trains either ran single stack from Norfolk to Columbus, Ohio or took a circuitous double-stack route via Harrisburg, PA before heading west to Chicago. While the route to Chicago via Harrisburg covers 1,264 miles, the route via the Heartland network covers 1,031 miles. Growing competition for Midwest business “The Corridor is a measure of the growing competition that ports like Montreal will face on the East Coast in a market where it has enjoyed some advantages,” said Paul Bingham, Economics Practice Leader with Wilbur Smith Associates, a global transportation consulting firm based i