What brought mighty CSX to its knees

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Saturday, February 20, 2010

Readers of the TRAINS News Wire know that two severe blizzards, on Feb. 6 and again on Feb. 10, played havoc with railroads on the East Coast. Less well known is that Amtrak service between Washington, D.C., and Savannah, Ga., was suspended for a week, and CSX freight trains on this corridor were either canceled (mostly) or ran hours or even days late.
 
The trouble centered on the 114-mile RF&P Subdivision of CSX, between Washington, D.C., and Richmond, Va. One source told me that CSX suffered “a complete meltdown.” Having just traveled the length of the RF&P Sub, I now know why traffic came to a near-standstill for day after day, and it wasn’t too much snow falling on the tracks.
 
After my northbound Auto Train passed Fredericksburg, Va., 59 miles north of Richmond, the true cause of the problem CSX faced became evident: trees. Hundreds if not thousands of trees standing just west of the two main lines were deluged on their branches with wet, heavy snow, and then blown over atop the rails by the high winds, which gusted to 40 and even 50 mph.
 
From my train, the sight of freshly cut trees, their trunks now stopped just short of fouling the tracks, is sobering. The phenomenon was visible for the next 40 miles, all the way to close-in suburban Washington.
 
Of course, it didn’t help CSX that its other route from Baltimore and Washington, the line to Cumberland, Md., Pittsburgh, and points west, was also blocked for days by the calamitous runaway derailment of 113 loaded coal cars on the Sand Patch grade between Cumberland and Connellsville, Pa. (Thanks to Alex Mayes for the after-action photo at the derailment site.)
 
All in all, it was a tough start for David Brown, the Norfolk Southern veteran who became chief operating officer of CSX only on Jan. 1. In the spirit of helpfulness, I offer David this advice: For every tree that covered the RF&P Sub, two more are half-uprooted and ready to fall the rest of the way with just a little help from Mother Nature, as you'll see in the bottom photo. You’d be smart to divert the nearest tie gang for two weeks and issue power saws to all hands for some badly needed preventative maintenance. After all, an ungroomed right of way can bring your railroad to a halt just as fast and just as long as a runaway coal train. — Fred W. Frailey

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