C&O takeover: Tracking changes on December 20

For many locals, "C&O" means fine dining, but for train buffs, it's a historic rail line that slices east to west through Charlottesville– and one that's undergoing a changing of the guard.

As reported in various media, including the Hook's May 13 cover story ["Shorting the C&O: Is this any way to run a railroad?"], a tiny Dillwyn-based railroad is set to begin operation of the 200-mile C&O, which it has leased from rail behemoth CSX Corp. The line stretches from Clifton Forge to the outskirts of Richmond.

"We expect to close on Monday, December 20 and begin operation on Tuesday, December 21," says Bob Bryant, president of the Buckingham Branch, in a mid-month interview (this year-end edition of the Hook went to press earlier than usual).

Bryant plans to work the line with four freight engines plying different sections of the tracks every weekday. With Staunton serving as one base and Doswell as the other, Charlottesville track-watchers can expect to see gray and red engines cruising through town twice a day, running parallel to the Downtown Mall and snaking through UVA grounds.

In a May filing with the federal Surface Transportation Board, the Branch revealed that it will pay $140,000 a year for the lease. A subsequent report in early November revealed that that figure is dwarfed by the amount CSX will pay the Branch to continue running its empty coal and grain hoppers: about $2 million a year.

That money may help the Branch allay some union safety concerns. The report also cited charges by the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees that the lease is "improper and deceptive," and that the C&O line already suffers maintenance problems.

The federal Board, however, found that the Branch "convincingly demonstrated" that it is prepared to fulfill its safety responsibilities.

Amtrak, which zips six "Cardinal" passenger trains per week across part of the line at speeds of up to 60 miles per hour, joined the union in attempting to place conditions on the lease.

In spite of the protests, the Board approved the lease and demanded only some labor-protecting concessions. The lone dissent came from a board member concerned that the deal would restrain competition by Norfolk-Southern and other carriers.

CSX has claimed that the C&O line was a perennial money loser. The only freight traffic, other than the frequent westbound empties, occurred just two or three times a week, according to Bryant. (Full loads ride the flatter James River line down to Tidewater ports.)

Under the lease, Bryant's business must pay real estate taxes and repair the tracks. Federal filings indicate that the Branch intends to move nearly 12,000 carloads on the line annually, while CSX empties– about 156,000 per year– will continue to provide the bulk of the traffic.

Bryant says that boosting the Branch's employment rolls from 15 to 40 has meant hiring several CSX veterans and has turned Dillwyn– where the newbies are being trained– into a rail hotbed.

"We still have a few positions open," says Bryant. And while he's not prepared to announce that any new customers have located near the line in the wake of the takeover announcement, he's optimistic that business will follow the tracks.

"We've got sales and marketing work to do," he says. "We just have to prove ourselves first."

As for local track-watchers?

"They will notice Buckingham Branch locomotives. They will notice daily service," he promises. "Hopefully, they'll notice a friendly railroad."