Citing forecasts of a nearly 70 percent increase in the freight industry by 2020, CSX argues that the massive multi-state rail upgrade it envisions will ease highway congestion, create new jobs and reduce pollution. A long list of public officials, including West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin and Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., have signed on to support the project.
When completed, the upgrade will enable double-stack container trains to travel from North Carolina through Virginia and Maryland, across West Virginia's Eastern Panhandle and then into Pennsylvania and on to Ohio.
Introduced on the nation's railroads in the 1980s, specially designed cars can carry two double-stacked shipping containers rather than just one container, thus dramatically increasing the amount of cargo a single train can haul. A train of conventional cars might haul 280 freight containers. But double-stacking the containers means the same train could haul as many as 400 containers.
However, much of the region's rail infrastructure is the nation's oldest, meaning many of its tunnels and bridges aren't large enough to accommodate double-stack trains. Hence, the CSXT project, which calls for enlarging or replacing more than 60 tunnels and bridges.
CSXT's National Gateway plan is similar to Norfolk Southern's Heartland Corridor project, already in progress along the NS tracks in southern West Virginia. Both projects involve raising the roofs of tunnels - even blasting them off entirely, if necessary - along with upgrading bridges.
Also important, the railroads say, is the construction of new facilities to transfer shipping containers between trains and trucks. New intermodal terminals envisioned in the Heartland Corridor project include one at Prichard in Wayne County.
The National Gateway plan doesn't include a new West Virginia terminal. Nonetheless, CSXT spokesman Bob Sullivan said the rail upgrade - and especially the construction of a new terminal at Pittsburgh - promises significant benefits for the state. Double-stack trains will speed the flow of goods into West Virginia, while giving shippers in West Virginia easier access to markets, Sullivan said.
CSXT also points to a new study by the Federal Railroad Administration that found double-stack rail transportation to be up to five times more efficient than truck transportation. Overall, CSX claims that converting 14 billion highway miles to double-stacked rail cars will reduce fuel consumption by nearly 2 billion gallons and CO2 emissions by almost 20 million tons.
CSXT has pledged to contribute nearly half the project's total cost, with the federal government and a half-dozen affected states sharing the balance. Ohio has applied on behalf of the states for $258 million in Transportation Investment Generating Economy Recovery (TIGER) discretionary funds, created as part of the federal stimulus package.
About $60 million is to be spent on upgrading the CSXT right-of-way in West Virginia, with the state being asked to contribute $5 million of that cost, Sullivan said.
"Our goal, if federal funding comes through, is to have most the work done by the end of 2012," said Sullivan. "We're really looking at 2015. That is when the expansion of the Panama Canal is supposed to be done."
Improving the canal to allow bigger freighters through its locks will mean more cargo delivered to East Coast ports. In voicing his support for the National Gateway project, Manchin noted the reduced CO2 emissions the project promises and the importance of speeding freight shipments to and from West Virginia.
"As a country, we must address the necessary long-term funding that is needed to ensure our place in the global economy," he said.
Capito was one of 30 House members who signed a Sept. 10 letter to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood endorsing the project.