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New intermodal route shaves 250 miles and a day's transit time between Norfolk and Chicago.
Ten years ago, about 70 percent of the Norfolk Southern (NYSE:NSC) international freight arrived in West Coast ports and was distributed from there. Today, however, the company's East Coast port network got a big shot in the arm as the company began running test trains on its new $261-million Heartland Corridor between the port city of Norfolk and U.S.' national freight rail hub in Chicago, including the construction of a new intermodal terminal in Columbus, Ohio.
The new corridor project, which runs on tracks already a part of Norfolk Southern's rail assets for over 100 years, will shorten the length of the trip between Norfolk and Chicago by 250 miles, thereby reducing associated fuel costs and carbon emissions.
“Our goal strategically is to provide as many opportunities for steamship partners," said Jeff Heller, Group Vice President International Intermodal at Norfolk Southern on a phone call today with reporters. Heller emphasized that they had no intention of dictating how their shipping clients should access the Norfolk Southern rail network (West Coast v. East Coast), but that providing another point of access to the network would be well received by many shippers, especially as the Panama Canal expansion begins allowing the new generation of monster freighters through its locks.
"We’re going to be able to run some big honkin’ trains through there," said Heller of the new Heartland Corridor, which was built to allow the more efficient double-stacked trains along its entire route. The project involved improving the clearance in 28 railroad tunnels in Virginia and West Virginia to accommodate double-stacking.
One intermodal train can take 250-300 trucks off the highway and double-stacking allows freight rail companies like Norfolk Southern stay competitive with long-haul trucking. “Hundreds of containers on each train that will translate into hundreds of trucks” taken off the road, said Heller.
"Double-stack trains are able to ‘densify’ the movement," said Heller.
Public-private project financing
The project was made possible by a unique public-private financing partnership, one of the largest public-private rail projects in U.S. history. Of the $261 million project cost, NS was responsible for $141 million and public sector partners subsidized to the tune of $120 million. The bulk of the public sector financing came from the U.S. Government via the transportation bill of 2004. The remainder came from the states of Virginia and Ohio.
According to Heller, Norfolk Southern began running test trains on the tracks today in preparation for the first double-stack train scheduled to go through the corridor on September 9.
Learn more about the coal-centric past and container-focused future of the Heartland Corridor: