Whistle pop: C&O will compete 'fiercely'

The mom and pop business that wants to take over the historic mainline of the C&O railroad will pay $140,000 a year for the privilege– plus pay all the real estate taxes, repair the tracks, and compete "fiercely" with trucks.

The specifics emerged recently in an agreement filed May 26 with the federal government's Surface Transportation Board. According to the lease from CSX Transportation to the Buckingham Branch Railroad, the move could displace 32 CSX employees. The smaller railroad intends to hire 21 employees.

As detailed in the Hook's May 13 cover story, union rules typically protect jobs, but not locations. Displaced employees– of which Charlottesville has six– could end up in another state. Buckingham Branch, however, claims in the filings that it intends to hire local workers in time for the December 20 changeover.

CSX has long contended that it loses money on the old C&O. The Jacksonville, Florida-based company operates about 23,000 miles of railroad– and fewer every year. Like the three other major American railroads, the company constantly abandons tracks, even though America's total railroad freight has been expanding for at least a decade, thanks to growth of "inter-modal" traffic– containers that can move from rails to trucks and to ships.

The Buckingham Branch is a family business based in Dillwyn. It plans to run four daily freight trains at various points across the nearly 200-mile span that runs from Clifton Forge in the Shenandoah Valley to Doswell, just north of Richmond.

This isn't the first time Robert and Annie Bryant have taken over a piece of the CSX. They acquired the Buckingham Branch in 1989. Serving pulp mills, stone quarries, and other industries along its 17-miles of low-speed track, the Buckingham Branch increased its annual traffic, according to the federal filing, from 800 carloads to a high of 2,400 carloads.

 The company plans to more than quadruple that volume on the C&O, which should initially see nearly 12,000 annual carloads– not to mention 156,000 empty coal and grain cars that CSX will continue to roll over the line.

While the rent BB pays CSX is pegged at $140,000 for the first 10 years of a 20-year rental term, what is hidden from public inspection are the amounts CSX will pay for the right to run the empties, the bulk of the traffic on this once-busy rail thoroughfare.

Another thing hidden from public view is the "detour agreement" that might allow CSX to virtually commandeer the C&O line in case of emergency or maintenance on a CSX parallel line which follows the James River. That means that if the James suffers another 1972- or 1985-style flood that disrupts traffic for weeks, CSX has a way to send freight to the ports of the Chesapeake Bay.

Such a safety valve convinces many union workers that CSX, contrary to its public protestations, really does value the old C&O line– and simply wants to benefit from taxpayer largesse.

The state has a program that funds capital improvements on Virginia's 12 short-lines. This year, the pool totals $3.12 million, according to George Conner, the rail director of the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation. Buckingham Branch's share will be $400,000, says department spokesperson Rick Clawson.

The state justifies the subsidies on the grounds that rail helps unclog Virginia's roads.

"Every railroad car takes about four trucks off the roads," says Phil Light, the president of the Virginia Railroad association, an industry consortium. "If you like driving up 81 with an 18-wheeler on either side of your Chevette or whatever," says Light, "then keep doing what we're doing."

The lease turns local service and track maintenance over to the Buckingham Branch when it takes effect December 20. Signals and dispatching would become a BB responsibility after two years.

The new operators plan to utilize two railyards: Doswell and Staunton.

The Doswell yard will send one train west as far as Gordonsville and another train south to Richmond. The Staunton yard will send one train west to Clifton Forge and one east thru Charlottesville and on to Gordonsville. Each is a round-trip run.

The total of four trains per day is more frequent than existing CSX service, and the Bryants, in their application, also promise to be more responsive.

"Customers," says Association president Light, "can expect better service because the people who'll provide it are local– they're not in Jacksonville."

If the BB wants to revitalize the Staunton railyard, known as the "C&O flats," that could be bad news for the Virginia Central Railroad, which has been parking its vintage train sets there since 1993.

A steam excursion line long mothballed by CSX's insistence that it carry $200 million in liability coverage, the Virginia Central might now have to carry $500 million worth of insurance, according to the lease. Virginia Central operator Sally Kammauff, who had earlier expressed optimism that she might once again run her "Autumn Glory" trains, declined to comment for this story.

Railyards in Staunton and Doswell would run four daily round-trip freight trains.