Thursday, January 28, 2016

A bridge to go silent

During the quarterly conference call with investment analysts yesterday, executives of Norfolk Southern confirmed they plan to shut down the rail line between Charleston, W.Va., and Columbus, Ohio.

NS had said earlier this month that idling parts of the line known as the West Virginia Secondary was under consideration. Although they did not come out and say it at the time, you had to figure the shutdown was almost certain merely from the fact they had mentioned it.

The line crosses the Ohio River at Point Pleasant, W.Va. On the Ohio side, it uses CSX tracks up to Middleport at a place called Hobson yard, where the railroad does crew changes and such and sends trains on to Columbus if they are northbound. CSX itself hasn't used those tracks in years as far as I know, considering the tracks that led to them from Gallipolis, Ohio, and points north was removed in the early 1980s.

The fact the West Virginia Secondary is being idled is not surprising, as there are few if any major customers along it between Charleston and Columbus. Norfolk Southern is fending off a takeover attempt by Canadian Pacific Railway, and it's doing what it can to cut costs to the bone to increase earnings and convince stockholders that it will function best as a stand-alone company.

The shutdown of the West Virginia Extended means train traffic will come to an end across the Point Pleasant bridge. A short-line railroad might take it over, but if Norfolk Southern doesn't have enough traffic to justify keeping it active, who else would?

The bridge was finished in 1907. Its owners have included the Kanawha and Michigan Railway Company, New York Central, Penn Central, Conrail and now Norfolk Southern. I don't know how many other railroad bridges there are on the Ohio that are no longer in service, but this is the only one I know of within an easy drive of where I live near Huntington, W.Va. This does not count the Purple People Bridge in Cincinnati or the Big Four Bridge at Louisville, both of which have been converted to pedestrian use and so are still in service in some way.

I do know of an unused CSX bridge over the Kanawha River at Charleston. The bridge had deteriorated since it went out of service. A few years ago a study was done to see what it would take to make it into a bicyce and pedestrian bridge. The cost was about $12 million, which quickly killed that idea. The dream might be floating out there, but if anything concrete is going on, I haven't heard about it.

I don't know what shape the bridge at Point Pleasant is in. There may be talk about converting it to pedestrian or bicycle use if no railroad is interested in it, but there's always the question of money.

So for now, an uncertain countdown begins to the day another bridge goes silent from lack of use.