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Norfolk Southern officially opens up Heartland Corridor

By Jeff Berman, Group News Editor
September 09, 2010

Earlier today, Class I railroad carrier Norfolk Southern officially opened up its long-awaited Heartland Corridor.

The Heartland Corridor, said NS officials, is a public-private partnership between NS and Virginia, West Virginia, Ohio, and the federal government to create the shortest, fastest route for double-stack containers moving between the Port of Virginia and the Midwest. Its route stretches across Virginia, through southern West Virginia, and north through Columbus, Ohio. NS added that this route improves transit times from Norfolk, Va. to Chicago from four days to three and is 250 miles than previous routes for this line.

NS marked the occasion at the Cowan Tunnel located near Radford, Va., when Norfolk Southern Train 233 passed through the tunnel at 11 a.m. ET today with 200 Midwest-bound double-stack containers.

A significant benefit of the Heartland Corridor is that 28 NS raised vertical clearances on 28 tunnels and removed 24 overhead obstacles on one of its main lines connecting the Mid-Atlantic to the Midwest, according to NS. This construction is a main driver in the Heartland Corridor’s ability to accommodate double-stacked containers and cut down on route miles and transit times. Prior to the Heartland Corridor, NS double-stacked trains were forced to take longer routes via Harrisburg, Pennsylvania or Knoxville, Tennessee.

Freight railroad industry stakeholders have told LM the benefits of a cleared corridor cannot be overlooked, as they allow for efficient double-stacked containers for Midwest bound freight running on unit, shuttle, or fully-utilized trains. These trains also take trucks off the road, which in turn bring about subsequent benefits such as less over-the-road congestion and highway wear and tear, increased safety, lower emissions, and lower prices for consumers.

NS began construction on the Heartland Corridor in October 2007. This effort required the modification of 5.7 miles of tunnels through roof excavation and liner replacement, arched roof notching, track lowering, and realignment, according to NS.

An Associated Press report indicated the NS invested $97.8 million into the Heartland Corridor, with the federal government contributing $83.3 million, and Ohio and Virginia spending a cumulative $9.8 million. The report also noted that double-stacked trains can reduce shipping costs by about $500 per container.

“This is a remarkable achievement, and it marks a notable date in transportation history,” said NS CEO Wick Moorman in a statement. “Together we have shown what can be accomplished when the right partners work together for the right goals. The Heartland Corridor’s completion is not an end but rather 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.”

A noted freight rail expert told LM that the Heartland Corridor may have multi-faceted purposes for shippers.

“Even though the central thrust of this effort is to provide stack access to the ‘heartland’ and Chicago from the NIT (Norfolk International Terminals area, I expect that there may be a significant chunk of domestic business that uses this routing, too,” said Brooks Bentz, a partner at Accenture’s supply chain practice. “The highway routings from the Carolinas and Virginia to the west are less than perfect, so I’d expect a jump in that business, although I would not expect the growth to be rapid.  Presently, if you’re a shipper in this territory (Carolinas and Virginia) who wants to use intermodal, it’s not an easy thing to do.  Realistically, you end up draying to Baltimore, Harrisburg or Atlanta, if you bother to do it at all.”

The introduction of the Heartland Corridor comes at a time when railroad and intermodal volumes are doing well on a year-over-year basis but still lag 2008 levels. But carload and intermodal volumes over the last few weeks have set 2010 record highs, according to the Association of American Railroads.

For the first 35 weeks of 2010, U.S. railroads reported cumulative volume of 9,945,718 carloads, up 7.1 percent from 2009, but down 12.6 percent from 2008, and 7,494,424 trailers or containers, up 14.4 percent from 2009, but down 4.7 percent from 2008, according to AAR data.

The Heartland Corridor is not the only long-term rail infrastructure endeavor the NS is working on. Work is still ongoing for its Crescent Corridor project, a nearly $2.5 billion public-private partnership (PPP) to build a rail corridor spanning from Louisiana to New Jersey, will improve its rail network from the northeast to the southeast, expedite the delivery of cargo shipments, and reduce highway congestion by diverting truck traffic. The entire Crescent Corridor project is expected to be completed by 2013.

About the Author

Jeff Berman headshot
Jeff Berman
Group News Editor

Jeff Berman is Group News Editor for Logistics Management, Modern Materials Handling, and Supply Chain Management Review. Jeff works and lives in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, where he covers all aspects of the supply chain, logistics, freight transportation, and materials handling sectors on a daily basis. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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