Norfolk Southern Corp. on Thursday ran its first train loaded with double-stacked cargo containers through some of the most rugged parts of the Appalachian Mountains, opening a $191 million route made possible by an ambitious tunnel-expansion project.
The company raised the heights of 28 tunnels along an old coal route, creating a more direct path for bigger freight trains to travel from an international shipping port in Norfolk, Va., to a transfer terminal in Columbus. The trip is now shorter by 250 miles — and 24 hours.
Norfolk Southern, and eastern rival CSX Corp., want to maximize the amount of consumer goods they can haul on a single train as they compete with the trucking industry to take more freight from the East Coast to the Midwest. They're also preparing for the 2015 expansion of the Panama Canal, which will make it easier for Asian freight to reach eastern U.S. cities.
Railroads are considered gauges of the nation's broader economic health because they carry a wide range of goods for consumers and businesses. Thursday's Norfolk Southern train carried 150 double-stacked containers loaded with such items as televisions, computers and Christmas decorations as it rumbled through the mountains of Virginia, West Virginia and up into the hills of southern Ohio.
Norfolk Southern put up $97.8 million for the three-year project, while the federal government added $83.3 million. Ohio and Virginia chipped in $9.8 million.
"This is a remarkable achievement, and it marks a notable date in transportation history," Norfolk Southern CEO Wick Moorman said. "Together we have shown what can be accomplished when the right partners work together for the right goals."
Manufacturers, and ultimately consumers, will save money because double-stacked trains can reduce shipping costs about $500 per cargo container, said James Blaze, who studies rail economics at Zeta-Tech Associates Inc., a transportation consulting firm in Cherry Hill, N.J.
Their use can also take commercial truck traffic off highways, he said. A fully loaded double-stacked train can carry the equivalent load of 280 trucks.
Norfolk Southern declined to release projections for shipping volumes along the new route.
The railroad had been using more a circuitous route to Columbus, running through Maryland and Harrisburg, Pa., then west into Ohio. Once they get to Columbus, the containers are loaded onto trucks. Such use of two modes of transportation to move a good, called intermodal shipping, is cheaper and has been on the rise as companies keep costs low coming out of the recession.
Intermodal shipments are up 14.4 percent so far this year, according to the Association of American Railroads, the industry's main trade group. But they're still down 4.7 percent from 2008 highs.
CSX, based in Jacksonville, Fla., is starting a similar project, helped by $98 million in federal stimulus money. CSX and its affiliates have committed $395 million to an estimated $842 million public-private project that will raise vertical clearances on tunnels and bridges so double-stacked trains can run on its routes.
Western railroads, which traditionally have handled the bulk of international shipping, undertook clearance projects many years ago, said Lauren Jones Sandberg, a spokeswoman for the Association of American Railroads, the industry's main trade group. Infrastructure in the east is older, and there are far more tunnels to raise.
Norfolk Southern's expansion included the Cowan Tunnel in Radford, Va. The 3,302-foot tunnel — over half-a-mile long — was built in 1916 and was the longest of the tunnels that were modified. The project also cleared 25 other obstacles, such as a bridge overpasses and power lines.
Norfolk Southern operates about 21,000 miles of rail in 22 states and the District of Columbia.
AP Transportation Writer Samantha Bomkamp in New York contributed to this report.