Norfolk Southern's problem in the Crescent Corridor

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Thursday, May 13, 2010

It’s 8 o’clock in the morning when you drive into Bulls Gap, Tenn.  This is the fifth time you’ve been here over the past four years, and each time two things remain constant: It’s always overcast. And you always see a train. Today is no different. The clouds are so heavy and low you wonder why there’s no downpour. And a signal on the south track is high green for a westbound Norfolk Southern freight train. You park your car to wait.
 
Bulls Gap’s population exceeds  4,000, but you’ll see no one today other than the letter carrier. It’s always like this by the tracks, as if time had stopped. Ten feet from the main line are two long-abandoned hotels, slowly decomposing, one owned by someone named Gilley and next door, a three-story affair named for a Smith. You take out your camera and compose a 24-millimeter image that would include both hotels and the train you hope is coming. Just as you do, a defect detector nine miles to the east reports no defects on a train.
 
So you wait. And wait. That westbound train is not making good time.
 
Bulls Gap is on the Bristol Line of the Knoxville District, between Bristol, Va., and Knoxville, Tenn., 125 miles. To put that in better context, Bulls Gap is smack dab in the middle of Norfolk Southern’s Crescent Corridor, which extends from New Jersey to New Orleans but whose heart and soul lies between Harrisburg, Pa., and Memphis , Tenn., and Birmingham, Ala.
 
Harrisburg-Memphis in particular is a huge corridor for Interstate highway  trucking — the busiest in the country, perhaps. Norfolk Southern has studied that trucking market and thinks it can make partnerships with a lot of those truckers. It already has three sizable intermodal terminals in the Harrisburg area and is building even bigger terminals in both Memphis and Birmingham, to open in 2012. But first it has to solve what you might call its Bulls Gap problem.
 
Half an hour after that detector report nine miles away, the train rumbles through Bulls Gap at a deliberate speed you guess is 20 mph (top photo). Behind two Dash 9-44CWs come an endless string of boxcars, covered hopper cars, and the like. This train is making NS money, but not very quickly.
 
On U.S. Highway 11E, you quickly catch up with the train, which over the radio reveals itself as symbol freight 37Q. Almost 20 miles west of Bulls Gap, on a two-track segment, 37Q comes up behind a stopped westbound train, and presently going east is train 38Q. It’s also making about 20 mph (bottom photo).
 
You’ve seen enough and continue driving west, hearing 37Q report its progress intermittently. You later learn that it left Bristol at 1 a.m., and more than eight hours later, it’s still trundling toward Knoxville. In fact, you’ve just seen three trains, one of them stopped and the other two unable to go faster than 20 mph.
 
Trains that just plod along constitute the Crescent Corridor’s Bulls Gap problem.  NS isn’t going to make many friends among the trucking companies along this route with trains like the three you’ve seen this morning. Velocity around here sucks. There are not a lot of sharp curves around here, or heavy grades, so far as you can tell. Sure, the intermodal trains NS intends to introduce on this route will be more fleet of foot. But everything must speed up to make the Crescent Corridor intermodal plan work. Otherwise, slow trains like 37Q and 38Q will just gum up the works.
 
The Crescent Corridor project is a huge initiative. Norfolk Southern expects to eventually spend $2.5 billion on terminals and track improvements, the latter to increase both speed and capacity. You’ve just seen the magnitude of the problem NS must overcome. Good luck, guys! — Fred W. Frailey

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