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State's railroad industry almost at screeching halt

by Torie McCloy


A lonely red caboose sits on a weed-covered, abandoned railroad track with boards over the windows and some rust trickling down the side. It isn't an uncommon site in several parts of West Virginia.

Railroad companies have abandoned tracks in many areas of the state, saying the lines aren't profitable. Tracks have been sold to the state park system for trail expansions. That leaves residents from places like Doddridge and Randolph counties pedaling along tracks that full-power steam engines once charged down.

Steve Turner, chief executive officer of Hartland Building Supply Center in Clarksburg, said the trails are nice, but something has to stop the erosion of the railroads. If the rails are gone, he said, businesses will be gone, too.

"At some point in time you need not another trail, you need industry," Turner said.

Next month, CSX will decide whether to pull the rail spur near Pike Street out of Clarksburg. Turner, who receives much of his supplies via rail, is fighting to keep it there.

"It's a balancing act of how much traffic we have on the line, revenue on the line and the cost to maintain it," said Gary Wollenhaupt, director of corporate communications with CSX.

"Like any business, if you have an asset you have to look at it and see if it's providing a return on your investment," he said.

Without the rail, every part of Turner's business would be touched, he said. Shipping by trucks, his only other option, would cost more. That would eventually lead to increases in the cost of his products.

"It would make a difference in our competitiveness against chains like Lowe's and 84 Lumber," Turner said.

He said Hartland can compete with such chains when receiving supplies by rail. He's concerned, however, the company won't be able to match the costs of national chains with truck shipping. If the rail is taken, he will have to reconsider his suppliers and his business location.

Hartland officials have written letters to U.S. congressmen and have worked with the West Virginia Rail Authority to try and stop the removal of more rail in the area.

"Without a rail spur, no big industry will come to the area," Turner said. "Any time any amount of rail is removed, it impacts the area."

Elkins Mayor Jim Hammonds agrees.

Empty red cabooses and abandoned rails are in abundance along Industrial Park Road in Elkins. Once the center of a huge railroad industry, the tracks now are used more for speed bumps than for train traffic.

"This was a pure and simple railroad town at one time," Hammonds said. "We're about out of the railroad business now."

Doddridge County is out of the industry.

The tracks running along Railroad Street in West Union were taken up nearly a decade ago.

Doddridge County Chamber of Commerce President Earl Daugherty said he remembers as a child being able to climb aboard a train on Saturday to take a trip to Clarksburg or Parkersburg with stops in every small community along the way. He remembers watching trains carry military equipment along the tracks during the Vietnam War -- even the Barnum and Bailey Circus stopped in town with animals hanging out of the rail cars.

Daugherty said the end of the railroad started a progressive decline in Doddridge County. The trains eventually started stopping only in larger towns. Not long after that only freight trains stopped in the area. By the late 1980s, the tracks were pulled up.

"It was just another harpoon in the heart of Doddridge County," Daugherty said. "It's a part of history now."

But, State Rail Authority Executive Director John Hedrick said the industry isn't about to jump the tracks. Plenty of steam left in it, he said.

"The industry is not going away," Hedrick said. "It's changing and adapting to the market place, but not disappearing."

Hedrick said the railroad industry began its decline in West Virginia after World War II. It hit the lowest point in the 1970s, when interstate and air transportation began to improve. Several railroad companies in the northeast began filing for bankruptcy.

The federal government stepped in and formed Conrail in 1976, which took over the bankrupt lines. In 1980, Congress passed the Staggers Act in honor of Sen. Harley Staggers of Keyser, W.Va. That act, a partial deregulation of the industry, allowed companies to compete with rates and abandon unprofitable lines.

Railroad companies could abandon lines if they proved they weren't making a profit and had no prospect of doing so. Freight became the lifeline of the industry, as passenger rails were traded for buses and airplanes.

Freight hauling specialized in bulk commodities, such as coal and grain, on long hauls. Trucking was the cheaper route for shorter, lighter loads.

"You had to have a certain volume to make trains efficient," Hedrick said. "In rural areas like West Virginia, it was not as viable."

The average length of freight hauls has grown from 334.1 miles in 1929 to 842.6 miles in 1995, Hedrick said.

Frank Fowler, director of administration for the CSX Cumberland, Md., Division Headquarters, said the coal industry played a huge role in determining the lines that stayed and the lines that went.

"As the industrial base shrank, rail transportation has also been decreased or downsized to accommodate the present business volumes," he said.

As the coal industry changed, the rails started disappearing, Fowler said. The line from Clarksburg to Weston used to haul 120 to 160 loads of coal per day. Now, it is gone.

Some short haul markets, such as from Harpers Ferry, W.Va., to Washington, D.C., have proved profitable, Fowler said. Congestion in the air and on interstates might make railroads look even better, he added.

"We're going through a transition period. As we go into the next century, we will be considered a growth industry again," Fowler said.

CSX approved last month $500 million to make track improvements as part of a recent Conrail acquisition.

"We definitely expect to see railroads to stay around a while," Fowler said.

But, not everyone is encouraged by a huge investment in railroad tracks.

David Lopez, a third-generation railroader, said he's watched many of his co-workers be replaced by machinery. He doesn't really want his four children to continue the family railroading tradition.

"I'm probably the last," he said. "It looks like a dinosaur."

He remembers when the Glen Elk section of Clarksburg was the central hub of the railroad industry. Most of that is gone now. If CSX removes the rail spur near Pike Street, it may become extinct.

Lopez said he's even worked taking up abandoned tracks. That, he said, is one of the hardest parts of his job.

"It's kind of like losing an old friend or moving away," he said. "The track is like home. You spent 20 years on it and all of the sudden it's not there anymore."

He said each additional track that is abandoned makes him worry about his job.

"The railroad will be there for industry, but there isn't much industry left here," the Clarksburg resident said.

Still, Lopez won't think of switching occupations. He said railroading is in his blood. He'll do anything to "keep the big steel wheels rolling."