Fred Frailey Blog

Norfolk Southern's problem in the Crescent Corridor

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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

  • Thanks, Fred, for another intersting vignette.  But if it's not the physical plant, what gives?  Operating philosophy?  Is this the best asset utilization (read $1.5 million locomotives)?  Is this what BNSF or UP would do with this traffic?  Please fill us in if you uncover more.

  • DRGW man, I am puzzled by what I saw in Bulls Gap and west. If I knew the reason NS trains run in slow motion, I'd have revealed it. I'm hoping someone will read this and shed light.

    Fred Frailey

  • How did the PRR do it with all their freight and

    passenger trains ?   They moved alot of trains the

    old    fashioned way

    as did the New Haven on the north end

  • I think the line has more curves that it may appear and those curves have little super-elevation.   So,even though the line is good for 60 mph, there are a lot of 40 mph curves - and I believe the passing sidings are dark, so the trains creep in and out at 20 mph.  It's a relatively light density line, with little intermodal traffic (at the moment), so there was no need to spend a lot to keep track speed up through the curves.  You only need enough to get the merchandise trains over the road w/o a recrew.  What you saw may be a bit of an aberration, too.  Avg speeds on that line don't appear a whole lot slower than the system average.

  • Wow, that's interesting!

  • Fred: Grew up in Bristol so I will try to comment.

    1. Bristol - Johnson City very curvy and the 20+ miles took passenger trains almost 45 minutes.

    2. NS added a CTC controlled siding at Piney Flats some time in the 1990s. (mp 14?).

    3. Johnson City  --  essentially 1 - 1/2 miles of street running. Although haven't been ther in 20 years at that time ABS stopped 2 miles east of downtown and re started about 2 miles west of downtown with restricted speeds on that segment. During passenger years there was a siding from the east past the passenger station (long gone) but 2 track is gone now? That is a real choke point.

    3. Johnson City thru Jonesborough (they changed spelling some time ago) is a very narrow crooked ROW and in Jonesborough itself the track is on the side of a curvy hill which the last time I saw a freight it moved at a slow 15 MPH with the axels screaming bloody murder. I suspect train trailing tonage / length may be limited due to chance of stringlining. (its that curvy). ROW appears very narrow in Jonesborough and close to city hall and county offices.

    4.Continuting on thru Greenville and to Bulls Gap with a few exceptions curves remain. Can remember taking passenger train from Bristol -  Greenville taking over 2-1/2 hours.

    5. Once past Bulls Gap speeds increase but there are at least 10 grade crossing in Morristown?.

    6. Then at Morristown where the passenger main from Asheville joined to the New Line was single track with passing siding to New Line. From there all the way to Sevier yard was double track current of traffic ABS. North double track was removed when all Zinc mines closed around Jefferson City with ABS and sidings but I do not know it current status (it is now CTC but do not know if second track restored).

    7. All - in - all a 4 - 4-1/2 passenger train trip Bristol - Knoxville with 3 Passenger and 2 Freight RTs per day. Traffic levels now I cannot imagine.

    8. If there has ever been a candidate for a new alignment on the Cresent corridor this section is the ideal candidate.

  • Wrote a detail comment will not repeat. Line is very curvy and has some restricted running in JohnsonCity and thru Jonesborough. Took SOU 4 - 1/2 hrs for passenger trains Bristol - Knoxville and 9 - 10 Hrs freights Bristol - Sevier yard. That was 3 Pass and 2 freight RTs a day.

Norfolk Southern's problem in the Crescent Corridor