Along with restaurants, nail salons and other businesses, the COVID-19 pandemic is impacting the freight trains that run through McDowell County as well.
Norfolk Southern Corp. announced recently it would idle the hump yard in Linwood near Salisbury and eliminate 85 jobs this month due to the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic. A hump yard is a railroad yard where the force of gravity is used to move freight cars onto the different tracks.
One of the reasons cited for this decision is the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Due to unforeseeable business circumstances, including volume declines due to the global pandemic and the abrupt economic downturn, Norfolk Southern is reducing operations at our Linwood Terminal by idling the hump yard,” said Jeff DeGraff, spokesman for Norfolk Southern.
He added Linwood Terminal will continue to provide switching service to local customers. This move will result in the abolishment of approximately 85 positions over the month of May.
“Some employees have seniority rights to exercise to positions at other locations,” said DeGraff. “Furloughed employees may have the opportunity to apply for positions, as available, elsewhere on the NS system.”
What this means for Marion, Old Fort and all the other cities and towns along Norfolk Southern’s line towards Asheville is far fewer or almost no freight trains will likely be traveling along the tracks running east to west in western North Carolina.
“Norfolk Southern will continue operate trains through the area as customer demand and volumes dictate,” said DeGraff. “We are constantly evaluating routes and making adjustments, so train counts may vary from time to time.”
He added this action doesn’t mean that Norfolk Southern trains will totally disappear from the line going from Linwood to Asheville. “Our routes are not generally fixed, so you can always see some fluctuations with train counts; but we will continue to use our routes in the most efficient ways possible,” he said.
Since this announcement, local officials and railroad enthusiasts have been concerned that the Norfolk Southern freight trains will become a thing of the past for McDowell County and other communities east of Asheville.
Mayor Steve Little is among them. In addition to being mayor of Marion, Little is an historian who has written books about the building of the railroad from Old Fort to Buncombe County. He is also a long-time member of the Western North Carolina Rail Committee.
“For many years, Norfolk Southern Railway has been changing the ways it conducts its railroad business,” he said to The McDowell News. “From my observations, NS has not wanted to be in the passenger rail business for many decades. Apparently, they can make a lot more money shipping freight. Doing only freight eliminated a lot of employees who checked tickets, handled suitcases, helped people on and off the train, and who would pose with children who wanted to have their picture taken with a real railroad person. The concept (and cost to the railroad) of personal service was also eliminated.”
Even the way Norfolk Southern handles freight shipping has changed over the past several years.
“They apparently don’t want to stop very often at smaller train stations or at rail sidings to take on less than a train-car-load of freight from industries,” said Little. “They seem to want to ship full-train-car loads only, and for longer distances. NS seems to have taken every way they could to eliminate employees and thereby save money.”
For years, the one exception was that Norfolk Southern would occasionally allow an excursion train to travel on what is referred to as the S Line in western North Carolina. That’s the stretch of the east-west tracks from Salisbury to Asheville. “Various groups would sponsor these excursion trains, which were extremely popular…especially in the fall when the mountains were full of colorful tree leaves,” said Little. “Essentially every group that would sponsor an excursion train ride on the S Line would sell out their hundreds of tickets very quickly, sometimes within a day or two.”
The portion of the S-line that runs west of Marion (starting near Old Fort and running up to Ridgecrest, near Black Mountain) was known as the Mountain Division of the Western North Carolina Railroad. Folks riding on the excursion trains greatly enjoyed traveling through the seven tunnels and going around Andrews Geyser on that portion. Little has written about the building of this railroad and the geyser.
But a few years ago, Norfolk Southern stopped permitting excursion trains to travel on the S Line.
“NS had cut back on the number of trains it ran over the S Line, which is why we don’t see nearly as many trains anymore,” said Little. “And now, with their latest decision to further cut back on freight on the S Line, it will be rare indeed to see a train come through Marion anymore.”
He added there is one glimmer of hope for this historic and scenic railroad line.
“There is another company – WATCO – that operates 43 shorter train lines all over the United States,” said Little. “WATCO operates a section of track west of Asheville. Maybe, just maybe, WATCO would see the benefit of purchasing the rights to use the S Line from NS. And then maybe WATCO would resume not only freight, but perhaps restore excursion trains and hopefully restore passenger service. There is no actual evidence that WATCO is interested in the S Line. I am only speculating. But there is no hope of returning regular trains on the S Line as long as NS owns it. It seems reasonable to me that NS would be wanting to sell the rights to that section of track rather than use the tracks 2% of the time.”
CSX Transportation has a railroad line running north to south through McDowell County. The McDowell News attempted Thursday to reach out to a CSX spokesperson to see if the COVID-19 pandemic will affect that railroad’s operations in McDowell.
“CSX is laser focused on providing reliable, cost-effective, efficient service to our customers in North Carolina,” read an emailed statement.