Move over Los Angeles, Long Beach and Seattle. When the National Gateway and Heartland Corridor railroad projects are running full steam, there will be little argument for transporting goods to the US east coast and mid-west via west coast seaports.

Traditionally, the cheapest mode of transporting goods from Asia to the more densely populated regions east of the Rocky Mountains in the US was via mini landbridge – an intermodal rail service that connects with key west coast seaports. That was until east coast railroad companies Norfolk Southern and CSX Corporation teamed up with the Port of Norfolk (in Virginia) and Port of Baltimore (in Maryland), the federal government, and cities and states to improve connections to the mid-west.

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Doubling up

The aim was to accommodate more commerce inland by transporting larger quantities of freight by double-stack rail. Double-stack trains can move one ton of freight nearly 800 kilometres on a single gallon of fuel, with one train carrying the load of 280 trucks. The projects were developed in anticipation of the widening of the Panama Canal, which, when finished, will enable larger ships carrying goods from Asia to call directly to the US east coast.

Completing these rail projects was not easy. For CSX, its $842m National Gateway public-private partnership (PPP) involved raising bridges or lowering tracks in more than 50 locations between Baltimore and north-west Ohio. Norfolk Southern’s $191m Heartland Corridor PPP had to raise clearances in 28 tunnels and 24 other overhead obstacles. A total of about 9km of tunnels were modified.

Despite these obstacles, both Norfolk Southern’s Heartland Corridor and CSX’s National Gateway are up and running, and have already improved the flow of rail traffic through the US by increasing the use of double-stack trains and creating a more efficient rail route to link east coast ports with mid-western markets. Both projects have the potential to make a significant economic impact.

Within reach

The Heartland Corridor was developed to facilitate a more efficient link between the Port of Norfolk and two key mid-west destinations: Chicago and Columbus in Ohio. Last year, Norfolk Southern announced that it had reached an agreement with Ohio to extend a leg of the Heartland Corridor south-westerly from Columbus to Cincinnati, which is located on the Ohio River near the border of Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana.

Both Norfolk Southern’s Heartland Corridor and CSX’s National Gateway are up and running, and have already improved the flow of rail traffic through the US by increasing the use of double-stack trains and creating a more efficient rail route to link east coast ports with mid-western markets

National Gateway’s double-stack CSX route from the Port of Baltimore connects to its north-west Ohio intermodal terminal. The CSX project not only opens up logistics opportunities in north-west Ohio – an area highly depressed since the decline of its automotive industry – it also accommodates the state of Maryland’s vision for alternative use of the Port of Baltimore’s Seagirt Marine Terminal. 

In December 2009, the port embarked on its first ever PPP project with Ports America to enlarge the terminal as part of its Panama Canal strategy. With the CSX project now on line, Fredrik Elliasson, vice-president of chemicals and fertilizers at CSX, believes the port offers one of the most efficient intermodal terminals in the US. “With the north-west Ohio terminal, CSX is able to consolidate traffic from a variety of different origins into this hub and then run smaller spring trains into markets that were not previously served,” he says.

That translates into 80 million more consumers that were not rail served out of the Port of Baltimore. In addition, 11 new markets are being added to the six already served: Toledo, Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, Louisville, Indianapolis, Buffalo, Atlanta, Charlotte, Memphis, and Pittsburgh.