COVER- Shorting the C&O: Is this any way to run a railroad?

BY HAWES SPENCER EDITOR@READTHEHOOK.COM

PHOTOS BY JEN FARIELLO

News that railroad behemoth CSX might hand over the historic Chesapeake & Ohio main line between Richmond and Clifton Forge to a mom-and-pop short-line has transit officials and rail fans hoping for a new golden era of training– including the revival of that 1993 sensation, the Autumn Glory steam train. But for the men who fix the rails, there's another kind of steam.

They say safety and jobs are tied to the tracks, and they're angry and resentful about the prospect.

 

Mountain to shore

The single-track railroad line that divides north from south in Charlottesville used to be the main line of the Chesapeake & Ohio railroad stretching from the piers of Newport News to the coalfields of West Virginia. A steep line, it traverses the George Washington National Forest at Buffalo Gap and plunges under the Blue Ridge through Claudius Crozet's famous tunnel. While passengers still roll over the line on Amtrak's Cardinal, gone are days when the C&O's own passenger trains such as the FFV and the George Washington carried people in style.

In 1989, officials of the CSX Transportation, successor to C&O, told the state the company was losing money on the line and planned to abandon the stretch between Clifton Forge and Charlottesville. Rail fans were aghast. Politicians vowed to save it.

 

Mom and pop

Recent communications to freight customers and employees suggest that CSX is planning to lease about 200 miles of the former C&O– from Clifton Forge all the way to Richmond– to a tiny short-line called the Buckingham Branch.

Based in Dillwyn and operating less than 17 miles of track, the Buckingham Branch is a family business owned by Robert and Annie Bryant– with about a dozen industrial customers who appreciate the opportunity to move heavy loads from rural Buckingham to CSX's James River line and on to points all over the world.

Customers say the Bryants are dedicated and friendly. Three times a year, they let the Old Dominion Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society run excursions: the "James River Rambler" as well as a "Santa Train" on the 10-miles-per-hour Buckingham Branch tracks.

Except for a few errant dogs stepping in front of lumbering diesels, there's never been a fatality on the Buckingham Branch. But does this short-line have what it takes to maintain a former main line used several times a day by 150-car coal "empties" and six times a week by an Amtrak passenger train travelling at speeds over 60 miles per hour?

 

Fall of the heavy brigade

Like most cities, downtown Charlottesville– now an enclave of coffee shops, offices, and loft apartments– once was home to a thriving rail yard. Located east of the Belmont Bridge, the C&O yard had a roundhouse, a turn-table, and about a dozen sets of rails for maneuvering cars filled with tobacco, lumber, apples, wheat, chickens, and even sumac, according to Albemarle, a history by the late John Hammond Moore.

Until tractor-trailers decimated the industry, America moved most of its long-distance freight on rails. But even now, with freight traffic rebounding from the doldrums of the late 20th century, the nature of the business has changed.

In the past 10 years, says Tom White, spokesman for the Association of American Railroads, freight traffic has "grown rather substantially," from 1.2 trillion ton-miles to 1.6 trillion ton-miles. "And we expect it to continue growing," he adds.

While bulk commodities are still part of the traffic base, says White, the biggest growth sector is intermodal traffic: trailers and containers carried by flatcars to be loaded onto ships or trucks. The largest intermodal customer is UPS, the United Parcel Service.

"Intermodal requires a more precise level of service and stricter schedules," says White. Industry consolidation means that one railroad can move goods without visiting the yards of each railroad along the way. "You try to avoid rail yards as much as possible," says White. "Yards are where delays happen."

So does mingling with Amtrak.

White says that although the big four remaining freight carriers– Burlington Northern, Union Pacific, Norfolk & Western, and CSX– receive millions of dollars to cover "out of pocket" costs for carrying Amtrak, they don't profit from their legally mandated relationship with the passenger carrier created by Congress.

"In fact," says White, "you lose money when you look at all the costs associated with Amtrak." Carrying passenger trains often forces railroads to provide extra infrastructure in addition to the almost legendary delays.

In the late 1980s, city officials bought and developed the Charlottesville yard as a corporate office park with the Michie Company (now Lexis-Nexis) as the anchor tenant. The only vestige of the heyday of the C&O is the concrete coaling tower that has become a local landmark. The CSX presence has shrunk to just two short sidings and a pair of beige and brown office trailers.

 

Virginia Central Railroad starts

In the fall of 1993, native Virginians Sally Kammauff and her father, Jack Showalter, began a series of "Autumn Glory" steam excursions that captured the popular fancy.

Borrowing the name from the 19th century line that eventually became the C&O, the father-daughter duo created the Virginia Central Railroad. While they had their own trove of restored engines and cars, they didn't have a railroad, so they rented one from CSX for $81 a mile. They also rented a ticket office in the old C&O depot on Water Street.

"It was truly an event," says Bucky Chisholm, a financial administrator who bought a ticket on one of the first runs. "This wasn't about speed or destination," says Chisholm, although the train did reach speeds of 40 mph. "This was steam, cinders, and smoke– and absolutely beautiful views of pristine countryside."

On Saturdays, they ran west to Clifton Forge. On Sundays, they went east to Gordonsville. Round-trip tickets, priced at $12 to $114, sold out faster than a Dave Matthews concert.

"You had to beat people back with a stick," says Chisholm. He says he had so much fun he became one of the 103 volunteers who, in addition to a small paid staff, made the Virginia Central possible.

Meanwhile, Charlottesville city councillors vied with other local governments to offer stay-in-our-town incentives– such as attempting to sell the Virginia Central some land at the base of the old coal tower.

And then it all stopped. A railroad calamity nearly 1,000 miles away touched off a liability crisis that eventually crushed the project.

On September 22, 1993, a bridge weakened by a moments-earlier barge collision sent two engines and three passenger cars of the Sunset Limited plunging into an Alabama bayou. The horrific 3am accident killed 47 people, the worst disaster in Amtrak history. Over 100 wrongful death suits, most including bridge owner CSX, were filed.

Shortly thereafter, Kammauff learned that CSX was demanding that she carry $200 million in liability insurance. The Virginia Central Railroad was derailed.

 

The C&O flats

Flash forward 11 years. It's a sunny Saturday at the "C&O Flats" in downtown Staunton. An old combination rail yard and stock yard, this is the home of the mothballed fleet of the Virginia Central.

Sally Kammauff has surrendered to three days of hectoring by a journalist. She wants it clearly understood that she is not waging a campaign to persuade any railroads to carry her trains. But she might not mind if they decided to.

A volunteer shows up to cut the grass under the cars, while Kammauf's father, now 75, is busy performing routine maintenance. The equipment includes two fully restored steam locomotives, six coaches, two dining cars, and a traditional red caboose.

Time has taken its toll. As have the rocks. Neighborhood youth seem to delight in picking up the old ballast– the railroad term for the coarse granite rocks covering railbeds– and tossing them through the windows.

"They break them as fast as we put them in," says Kammauf, noting that she and volunteers have replaced 120 panes over the years.

The news hasn't all been depressing. The interior of the former ambulance car that Kammauf, her father, and Charlottesville cabinetmaker Blaise Gaston transformed into a dining car would pass any white-glove test. And in their decade-plus at the C&O Flats, Kammauf's cars have been in about 10 films, including the recent Hearts in Atlantis starring Anthony Hopkins. But the lack of nearby tracks to accommodate filming, has meant the loss of some film projects, Kammauff says.

The past 11 years have been eventful for Kammauf: She's survived cancer and increased her family to five children. "I've been kind of busy with real life," she says.

"We remain convinced that a steam excursion railroad on this line would offer tremendously positive economic benefits for the state and the communities along the line," says Kammauf. Although intrigued by the proposed lease, Kammauff says she has not talked with either CSX or the Buckingham Branch.

"We still believe it would be a wonderful boon for the entire community," says Kammauf. "We're glad the asset is still here."

 

Resentment on the rails

If there's cautious optimism in Staunton, there's disappointment in downtown Charlottesville at what's left of the old CSX rail yard.

"We don't have the big customers per se," says Fred Barker Jr., a track inspector with 23 years of experience on the railroad. "The CSX chose 15 or 20 years ago not to work this line because it wasn't profitable."

But Barker believes the old main line serves a major role in CSX operations. Even casual observers notice that about a dozen empty coal trains amble through Charlottesville daily. The empties, Barker says, constitute a lot of traffic that isn't clogging the busy James River line.

Barker reaches into his wallet and pulls out a multi-hued 20-dollar bill bearing the signature of the new U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, John W. Snow. Having left the chairmanship of CSX in 2002 to become President George W. Bush's treasury secretary, Snow reportedly took plenty of CSX currency when he went. Some estimates put his take at $60 million for just over a decade of running the railroad.

Some critics of corporate America consider such hefty payouts emblematic of the sloppiness of corporate boards. But to Barker, the payouts are emblematic of sloppy rails.

"If the railroad had $60 million to pay one man," says Barker, "why didn't they put it in this line and save these jobs?"

 

Jobs at risk; safety

"The lease is going to take my livelihood," says Barker, a 44-year-old Scottsville resident and father of two. He is one of four men based in Charlottesville whose positions could be lost or transferred under the proposed lease.

"I think it's a crock," Ben McGuire, a 24-year veteran of track repair, says of the proposed lease. McGuire and other employees gathered April 23 to get the news from a CSX executive via speakerphone.

"Everybody was just kinda shocked," says McGuire. "It's disheartening when you work at a place your whole life."

The men say they've been told that dispatching, signalling, and communications operations will continue to emanate from CSX's Jacksonville, Florida, headquarters. They– members of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way– say they earn about $20 an hour– around $40,000 annually including overtime. And they feel singled out for possible termination. Because no deal is finalized, neither CSX nor Buckingham Branch officials would talk about the specific details of the lease.

Because McGuire and Barker have so much experience, their options are a little better those of new hires. Barker believes he'll have to sell his house and move to Lexington. McGuire worries that he'll have to join a "suitcase gang" and fix lines somewhere far away on CSX's 23,000-mile system.

"I'll probably have to go back on the road," says track inspector Mark Linkswiler. He says a Buckingham Branch employee pegs the takeover date as December 1 with new hiring slated for November 1.

The inspector is sceptical. "You cannot train people in 30 days," he says. "It took me 26 years to get where I'm at and to know what I know."

Linkswiler, who lives on Route 53 in southern Albemarle's Buck Island area, lost a son two years ago. "He's buried here," says Linkswiler. "I don't want to move."

Kathy Linkswiler met her husband in 1985 when his rail job kept him away for three or four days a week working on a suitcase gang between Newport News and Hinton, West Virginia. It's only been the last five years that his seniority has allowed him to leave for work in the morning and come home at night.

"He worked his way up," says Kathy, a lab technologist in the UVA Medical Center, "and now they're going to pull the rug out from him."

"We all know what's going to happen," says Barker. "The taxpayers will pay for this track."

 

Rail preservation program

As the vice-chairman of the union, Roy Griffith says he recently learned that the new operator wants to install 70,000 new ties. But Griffith believes a more appropriate number for a line he alleges is in "ridiculous condition" would be closer to 200,000. Either way, he doesn't believe the Bryant family will be footing the bill.

With $15 per tie as the typical price, says Griffith, just 70,000 ties would tally over $1 million. That would probably come from Virginia's Rail Preservation Program, a state subsidy of $3 million a year in taxpayer funds for Virginia's nine short line railroads.

"The small pool will be consumed quickly," says Griffith.

Created in 1990, the subsidy program recognizes that for all the benefits they offer– fuel efficiency, labor efficiency, and reduction of truck traffic– short-lines can barely cover operating costs.

"If it's not turned over to a short-line," says Phil Light, president of the Virginia Railroad Association, "it gets abandoned."

A report in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, which first released word of the proposed lease, suggests that CSX reserves the right to continue to run its empty coal cars over the line. Griffin compares it to selling a used car to someone with a "rich daddy" who still lets you drive it.

"You don't have to change the oil and the belts," says Griffith. "It's a win-win for CSX."

"We might run some things over it," confirms CSX spokesman Sullivan. "When you get involved in a transaction like this, you try to ensure the viability of the line."

 

There's a lot riding on these rails

While the line running through Charlottesville means westbound empties to CSX, to Amtrak, it's the only way to run the Cardinal. Now carving a big southern arc between New York and Chicago, the Cardinal passes through Charlottesville three times a week in each direction.

And Barker has a dire concern. As the Alabama accident demonstrated, blame often falls on the track owner, and Amtrak's had some track problems. The immediate cause of the April 2002 derailment of Amtrak's Auto Train near Crescent City, Florida that killed four and injured 142 was heat-induced track buckle. However, the National Transportation Safety Board blamed CSX for inadequate "track-surfacing operations."

Two years earlier, after two Amtrak trains derailed on CSX tracks, the Federal Railroad Administration inspected all CSX track on which passenger trains ran. While CSX immediately fixed the problems, the ensuing compliance agreement threatened the railroad with civil penalties if it didn't upgrade its maintenance program.

"Amtrak runs 60 miles per hour, and this branch railroad is used to only 10 miles per hour," Barker notes. "What's going to happen if people get killed?"

CSX's Sullivan says safety is CSX's priority. "We worked closely with the Federal Railroad Administration, and those issues were addressed," says Sullivan. "Our record on track safety is a good one. "

Buckingham Branch general manager Steve Powell explains that the only reason the Buckingham Branch travels at 10 miles per hour is that several sections have tightly curving track. And he says his crews recently upgraded their track– which runs over 19 bridges including a biggie over the James– to handle 286,000-pound cars.

 

Death of the Air Line

How will Buckingham Branch employees get to work on the C&O mainline? They can't hop a train from Dillwyn. Thirty years ago, however, they could.

Until 1975, there was no gap between the Buckingham Branch and the old C&O mainline; there was the Air Line.

Built in 1908, the Air Line was a heavy-duty, 30-mile-long coal connection between the C&O main at Lindsey in far north eastern Albemarle, to the C&O James River line just west of Bremo Bluff at Strathmore.

When Potomac Yard in Alexandria stopped taking coal, the Air Line lost its purpose. In 1972, the C&O offered it to Fluvanna County, which was eyeing a possible tourist enterprise, for $248,000. Fluvanna– which a year earlier had sued to keep the Air Line running– turned down the offer, so the C&O ripped out the rails and sold off the right-of-way in bits and pieces.

Civic-short-sightedness or fiscal prudence? There are opinions on both sides.

 

Good for passengers?

East of Gordonsville, the C&O main line sweeps through Louisa and Hanover counties. It hugs the eastern edge of Paramount's Kings Dominion and connects to Richmond's most recently revitalized landmark– the 1901 Main Street Station. A red sandstone and brick confection of French Renaissance styling, it's the kind of building that sparks excitement– even if it weren't slated to receive high-speed trains by the end of the decade.

Griffith suggests that CSX has neglected this stretch by lowering its speed limits from 50 miles per hour when passenger service terminated in 1975 to 40 mph in the 1980s to today's to speed of 25mph. "It's in ridiculous condition," says Griffith.

CSX's Sullivan says it's an appropriate condition for a low-traffic freight path. But the fact that the track isn't welded means that fast passenger trains probably won't resume anytime soon, says Michael Testerman, long-time president of the Virginia Association of Railway Patrons.

"The track between Gordonsville and Richmond is what they call jointed rail," says Testerman. "It goes clickety-clack, clickety-clack."

 

Short-lines help whom?

Compared to big railroads, says Larry LeMond, who operates two short-lines, "We can give more personal service." LeMond runs the Eastern Shore and the Shenandoah Valley Railroads, the latter which he wrested away from the Bryants with a competitive bid in March 2003. "There's more of a personal touch."

The owners of Charlottesville's Lee Tennis Products know the feeling. Asked about the proposed lease, general manager John Welborn replies, "Boy, that would be great. We would love for Buckingham Branch to take over."

Lee Tennis makes the famous quick-drying Har-Tru tennis court surface, which is based on metabasalt, a hard and rare green stone mined in Shadwell. The company trucks its stones for processing to Zion Crossroads, and then ships out 80-100 railroad cars per year.

"That's not a lot when you spread it out over a year," says Welborn, "so you don't have a lot of clout with the railroads." He considers the Buckingham Branch "much more hands-on than CSX– just really good people to deal with."

Already, the Buckingham Branch has one customer ramping up for more shipments. Paper-maker MeadWestvaco has plans to replace its aging de-barking and chipping facility with a $5.3 million facility. The new plant three miles north of Dillwyn plans to ship 5,000 carloads per year on the Buckingham Branch– up from 2,000 per year currently– to the paper mill in Covington.

MeadWestvaco spokesperson Rosolyn Durden says that the competitive rail rates they've been offered will mean 10,000 fewer trucks on the highways hauling the wood and chips to Covington. A rezoning hearing for the new plant is slated for May 24.

 

The planners, the studies, and TDX

For regional urban planning chief Harrison Rue, putting the C&O in the hands of a small company might jumpstart the effort to use the rails for commuting– as part of "UnJam 2025," the effort the Thomas Jefferson Planning District is orchestrating. "We've had a lot of public comments like, 'Oh, wouldn't it be nice to have light rail from Staunton to Richmond?' " he says.

Rue's employee Ryan Mickels says he heard rumors several weeks ago that CSX may have found an operator for the C&O line. "CSX is not as willing as Norfolk Southern to accept passengers," he says. Indeed, Norfolk Southern officials stunned Central Virginia transit honchos recently by suggesting that the freight railroad would be willing to run the state's impending TransDominion Express (TDX) passenger service from Bristol to D.C. and Richmond– sending four daily trains through Charlottesville.

The mix of regional rail dreams also includes two recent preliminary studies from the Planning District. The September 2002 study– dubbed "Corridor Concepts"– envisions light rail stretching from Stanardsville along Route 33 to Ruckersville and bouncing across Route 29 for pick ups at major nodes including UVA, Fashion Square, Forest Lakes, and UVA's new arena plus its North Fork Research Park– before heading downtown on the C&O line, out to Pantops, and east to Zion Crossroads.

Another study, this one dated July 2003, proposes buying nimble Colorado Railcars to create a rail system that would connect Charlottesville commuters on the old C&O between Staunton, Waynesboro, Crozet, Louisa, and Mineral. The study even suggests taking over the downtown C&O tracks for commuters and pushing freight onto a new corridor south of town.

 

Kammauff understands CSX

Sitting inside her dining car, Sally Kammauff notes that she and her father paid CSX over $130,000 to run the "Autumn Glory" trains in the fall of 1993, but they couldn't get back on track. A particular irony in the demise of the Virginia Central, Kammauff says, is that she eventually secured the $200 million liability insurance– and still CSX shut her out.

"In 18 months, we got the insurance and said, 'Okay, we're ready. Let's go.' But they hemmed and hawed and said, 'Because of the traffic we're now running, it's not in our best interest at this time.' "

Kammauff says she disagrees with the position– but understands it. In an accident, people will sue but coal cars won't.

"They're badgered by rail fans all the time who want to run a train but may not know how," she says. CSX's position, she says, is pretty simple: "We're a freight railroad– leave us alone."


Bob and Annie Bryant operate 17 miles of short-line track in Dillwyn.


Can the Buckingham Branch keep the old CSX main line safe enough for the Cardinal?


Will the Autumn Glory, here chugging up Afton Mountain in October 1993, run again?
PHOTO BY JEB KRIIGEL


Getting passenger trains to Richmond will take lots of track work.


Fred Barker Jr. and Ben McGuire might have to leave Albemarle if C&O leases its line.
PHOTO BY HAWES SPENCER


Since its runs were quashed by CSX, the Autumn Glory trains have collected dust and broken windows at the "C&O Flats" in Staunton.


Jack Showalter and his daughter Sally Kammauff made six weekends come alive for hundreds in the fall of 1993.


"It's like a living museum," says Sally Kammauff of her Virginia Central Railroad, which includes two engines, eight railcars, and a caboose.

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