By Peter Galuszka

A few weeks ago, I was making another trip to the area near Matewan, W.Va., a small, historic town of red brick buildings a stone’s throw across the Tug Fork River from Kentucky. Matewan is noted for its coalfield labor strife caught dramatically in John Sayles superb 1987 movie of the same name and is the locus for part of a book I’ve been researching for the past 18 months.

There isn’t much hotel space available in the Tug Fork Valley. At times, I’ve had to stay dozens of miles away in Eastern Kentucky.  When available, I prefer a bed and breakfast right in the middle of Matewan and just steps from where Sid Hatfield, the town police chief, shot it out with rent-a-thugs from the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency in 1920 (yes, Big Money was into privatization even then).

Aside from seasonal all-terrain vehicle enthusiasts, the only big noise in Matewan is the Norfolk Southern. The original mainline of the old Norfolk & Western runs just behind the bed and breakfast. First you hear an odd whir, then a diesel horn blast and then your world shakes. Trains run anytime, day and night. It was the route of the fancy red and black Powhatan Arrow passenger train from Norfolk to Cincinnati. Now what you see are endless coal trains and hot shot containers racing their East Coast to Midwest route. Most recently, I have seen jumbo-sized, extra-tall coal hoppers whip past.

What’s the point of this travelogue? The extra-sized cars are the point. Nearly two years ago, Norfolk Southern completed a $321 million project using private and public money to raise tunnels in West Virginia and southwestern Virginia. The low ceilings had forced east-west,double-stack trains to spend an extra day going through Pennsylvania or Tennessee. Not anymore.

In fact, the so-called Heartland Corridor project means that Hampton Roads is uniquely qualified to take advantage of the larger, deeper-drawing container ships that are expected to boost trade when the Panama Canal expansion is completed in a couple of years.

That, at least, is the opinion of Alberto Aleman Zubieta, chief executive officer of the Panama Canal Authority. Zubieta worries, as many do, that U.S.East and Gulf Coast ports just aren’t ready for the new Panama Canal trade, except for Hampton Roads. “Norfolk is ready,” he was quoted as saying. “Rail has been modernized between Norfolk and Chicago; they understand the benefit of getting cargo to its destination.”

So, if Hampton Roads is already the beneficiary of a major rail improvement project that is now ready to handle Panamax cargo, then why all the hullabaloo over a $1.8 billion public-private project to expand U.S. 460? The expansion from Suffolk to Petersburg would relieve clogged Interstate 64 on the other side of the James River and would offer an extra emergency escape route should a major hurricane show up.

But the big reason for the project, enthusiastically backed by Gov. Robert F. McDonnell and his Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton, is that Hampton Roads desperately needs transportation access to handle all the new trade coming with the Panama Canal is expanded.

Yet if you listen to Zubieta, the project is in place. Finito. Even if you wanted to expand distribution and manufacturing centers in Southeastern Virginia, why couldn’t you do it with rail spur lines coming from the NS mainland that neatly parallels the existing U.S. 460? A number of distribution centers already use the rail line, including a Food Lion warehouse near Petersburg.

The road project has lots of problems. Its backers admit that tolls won’t pay for it. Some kind of industrial authority would have to be created with new factory or warehouse owners kicking in payments to make it work.

What about the already existing rail line? Why doesn’t someone bring that up? Doesn’t it make the expensive road project unnecessary? Or is there some under-the-table log-rolling going on that we don’t know about?

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  1. For an old Bolshevik, you raise some pretty good questions, Peter.

    To add to your point: CSX has made big investments to improve its container-moving capacity out of Hampton Roads in its National Gateway project.

    The only way U.S. 460 could be economically justified is if the anticipated increase in container traffic will far exceed the capacity added by the two railroads. How likely is that? Perhaps I’ll find the time to do that reporting.

  2. DJRippert Avatar

    I’ve wondered about the Rt 460 plan as well. First, you widen the Panama Canal so that gigantic cargo ships can fit through. This lets you bring the ships (which I understand are up to 4X bigger than traditional ships) to East Coast ports. From there, you unload the containers onto trucks? Not trains, trucks. Instead of hundreds of containers on a train you put one or two on each truck?

    I don’t know much about this stuff but it sounds odd.

  3. DJRippert Avatar

    Baltimore has already dredged it shipping channel to 50 feet. They will be capable of handling Post Panamax ships by August, 2012.

    New York has a deep enough channel but has the Bayonne Bridge which is too low for the new ships and won’t be raised until 2016.

    However, Miami, Charleston and Savannah are being tied in knots by regulations over their plans to dredge.

    Los Angeles and Long Beach load directly onto dockside rail heads most of the time. They claim that their technology and configuration gets product from Asia to Chicago 5 days faster than the East Coast ports even after they are outfitted for the bigger ships. However, the product spends more time over land (almost all rail) which is more expensive than waterbourne transit.

    All in all, it seems that Virginia and Baltimore will take market share from Los Angeles and Long Beach for Post Panamax ships headed for the East Coast and with non-perishable goods headed for the Mid West.

  4. DJRippert Avatar

    This is a good article on the matter – especially regarding the ability of Los Angeles and Long Beach to defend their market share.

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