Shortline time down south now includes doublestacks

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Tuesday, May 3, 2011

See if this hits you the same way it hit me: A southeastern shortline railroad whose reporting marks are HOG is going to start running doublestack containers in June between Cordele and the port at Savannah, Ga. The operation will take trains over three railroads on a route as straight as can be between the Atlantic Ocean and this business center in South Georgia. My reaction, after hearing about this development at this week’s American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association meeting in Texas, was sheer amazement.

Short lines are reaching out to try and grab intermodal business, and it could be a big source of new traffic for small railroads. But it still seems strange, akin in my thinking to a southern barbecue shack offering filet mignon along with pulled pork. Southern short lines are about hauling the basics: pulpwood, sand, and coal. I guess I still have trouble envisioning a set of TTX well cars with blue “China Shipping” containers rolling through the likes of Vidallia, Ga. But roll they will.

Yes, I know, short lines and regionals have offered intermodal service for years. Susquehanna and Iowa Interstate have provided it almost since their inceptions (although Iowa Interstate’s Henry Posner tells me that his road closed its Newton, Iowa, intermodal yard).

Brad LaFevers, president and CEO of the Heart of Georgia Railroad, says the 200-mile move will run about half and half on his railroad and a Genesee & Wyoming affiliate, Georgia Central. The last leg is on about six miles of CSX. Garden City Terminal handles switching at the port. The destination on the western end is Cordele in a rural part of Georgia that is out of range for intermodal traffic in Atlanta (2.5 hours away on Interstate 75), but has great potential, as a market study by Georgia Tech confirmed. Working with local officials over a nine-year period, the Heart of Georgia will serve the Cordele Intermodal Center on an 1,100-acre site that’s also accessible to a CSX main line. The initial terminal is about 20 acres, and will have 4,000-linear feet of track.

After gaining the support of the Georgia Ports Authority, state and local governments, and the Class I railroad connection for its intermodal service, the Heart of Georgia decided to launch the service to serve southwestern Georgia and parts of Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida. Among the lures to gain shippers: free container storage and a big price difference. LaFevers says he can ship four containers by rail for the cost of trucking one on the same route.

So far, two shippers are lined up. One is shipping kaolin clay and the other cotton. The latter is set to ship about 2,000 boxes per year. Stack cars will move one to two times per week on schedules of eight to nine hours. But the future is bold: Savannah is dredging the river into the port to make it more attractive to the larger ships that are expected to pass through the expanded Panama Canal in 2014.

The business comes along at a good time, LaFevers says. The railroad’s best year saw it haul about 7,500 carloads, mostly aggregates, building materials, and forest products. Last year was just above 5,000.

The railroads involved in the move will interchange the cars for now, but one day, LaFevers says, you may see power run through on doublestack trains. It will be so unlike a short line, and so just like the big railroads.

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