It may not help, but it probably won’t hurt to set up a new commission responsible for worrying about the loss of freight railroad service in part of southeastern North Carolina.
That’s pretty much what Gov. Pat McCrory said last week when he weighed legislation that authorizes a North Carolina and South Carolina Rail Compact Commission. He didn’t sign it and he didn’t veto it, so it became state law.
McCrory expressed qualms about creating a new state entity that would have the power to buy a railroad without the expertise to operate it. We’ll get back to that in a minute.
This new little law may be little more than the latest chapter in three years of futility that has thwarted employers and local leaders in Columbus County, and their neighbors in the South Carolina counties of Horry and Marion. It shines a light on how important a short line railroad can be to the economy of a rural county.
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The 95-mile-long Carolina Southern Railway runs north from Conway, S.C., across the border to Tabor City, Chadbourn and Whiteville. Then it heads southwest to Fair Bluff, returns to South Carolina and ends at Mullins – where it connects to a CSX track that is Columbus County’s freight connection to the rest of the world.
Or it was until the summer of 2011. That’s when the Federal Railroad Administration issued safety warnings about some bridges, prompting Carolina Southern Railway to cut back operations. By 2012, the trains had stopped running altogether. The Conway-based railroad’s owners said they couldn’t raise $2 million needed to complete the safety repairs on their bridges, including a trestle over the Pee Dee River near Fair Bluff.
The railroad shutdown was bad news for Columbus manufacturers, and it still is, says Gary Lanier, the county economic development director.
Idaho Timber, which had been bringing in bulk lumber by rail, had to pass on two or three contracts that would have added 15 to 20 jobs. Shipping costs increased for the Kroy plant that makes extruded vinyl fencing from PVC powder, which now arrives on trucks instead of trains.
“At Atlantic Corp. in Tabor City, they were bringing in six to eight train car loads at a time with large 6,000-pound rolls of paper from paper mills,” Lanier said. “Each one of those cars holds the equivalent of four truckloads of paper. All of a sudden you’ve got to start bringing in everything from the mill by truck. The expense of your freight goes up quite a bit.”
Georgia Pacific laid off its 400 workers in Columbus when the economy chilled in 2008. The company has indicated it is unlikely to reopen unless rail service is restored.
Local leaders from the three counties in both states formed an ad hoc panel that has spent the last couple of years trying to get the trains rolling again. Federal railroad laws make this more complicated than simply finding a new company to take over an idled business. There are tensions between Carolina Southern and its former customers. The federal Surface Transportation Board will have a say in how this works out.
CSX spun off the three-county line as unprofitable in the 1980s. Baltimore railroader Ken Pippin bought the line and renamed it in 1995. He may not have had sufficient cash flow to keep up with maintenance needs, especially after he lost big customers, including Georgia Pacific and an idled South Carolina power plant.
“There’s a lot of trestles and bridges in that part of the state, and there’s a lot of wet,” said Paul Worley, who heads the state Department of Transportation Rail Division. “Time and water and age take a toll on those structures, so they have to be maintained.”
Legislators got involved. There were newspaper stories in South Carolina about the prospect of both states getting together to buy the railroad and fix the bridges. The railroad compact, cooked up in the final days of the 2014 General Assembly, only hints at such a prospect.
McCrory acknowledged the importance of freight service for Columbus County but said he wasn’t ready to endorse the full range of powers the new law assigned to the two-state rail compact.
He noted that the new agency won’t come into being unless it also is approved next year by South Carolina’s legislature. And – thank goodness, the governor might have added – our legislature did not authorize any North Carolina dollars to be spent on the purchase of an old railroad. There’s time to amend this law in 2015, McCrory said. He added: “Acquisition of this railroad by the public sector should be the last resort.”
Railroad officials, legislators and South Carolina leaders did not return calls seeking comment. Tabor City lawyer Dennis Worley, who co-chairs the ad-hoc panel and is not related to the DOT rail director, said talks are under way with a possible private buyer for the railroad. Local governments are considering economic incentives that might sweeten the deal.
Columbus County folks say they won’t give up on this.
“We don’t care how it gets done,” Lanier said. “We don’t care if a magician comes and pulls a couple million dollars out of a hat that can be used to repair bridges.”