Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Railroad property rights: Routinely ignored

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Lots of New Jersey PATH riders headed for work early this Sept. 11, 2013, eager or anxious to get to and through PATH's World Trade Center Station and avoid the expected larger-than-normal crowds slated to gather for 9/11 Memorial ceremonies later on in the day. For many New Jerseyans this morning and throughout the year, rail transit rules.

Carlton Hill Branch NSBack in New Jersey, however, Class I freight railroad Norfolk Southern appears to be taking flak for, of all things, posting No Trespassing signs on its own property. The nerve!

NS's Carlton Hill Branch in Rutherford, N.J. (shown at left), hasn't been used in decades. I know plenty of property owners, mostly individuals, who don't actively use this or that property holding. They still own it. Few if any question their general right to use or dis-use same.

Railroads, apparently, don't get that courtesy. A local news source notes NS hasn't maintained the line in 30 years, resulting in trees and brush (the horror!) growing on the stretch. Can't have those things in the Garden State, no sir. Never mind that Norfolk Southern itself wasn't an established New Jersey presence until 1998, inheriting the ex-Erie Railroad route from Conrail. Clearly, NS is responsible for ... what, exactly?

An enterprising local apparently decided two years ago to start clearing a trail along the route, achieving a two-mile stretch of clearing, thus encouraging hikers and other locals to access the property. That result continues despite the No Trespassing signs NS has thrown up to remind people that the property isn't theirs. Now the trespassers don't have to guess who they'll try to sue should they suffer some mishap while being where they weren't invited.

Not that posting the signage was a mistake. Apparently, Norfolk Southern discovered that a contractor in neighboring East Rutherford chose to salvage rails still on site (without the borough's knowledge), and an East Rutherford councilman allows such a removal is, um, illegal and undesirable.

No knock on the councilman, who's being very upfront, but the inference seemingly made by others from all that is that Norfolk Southern wasn't using the materials, just as it isn't using the line, so who cares? "Even if the tracks were clear, they don't go anywhere," the news report sagely notes, suggesting to some, perhaps, that the whole issue of ownership is a nonstarter.

NS spokesman David Pidgeon sticks to the basics: "The property there is owned by Norfolk Southern, and if it serves our business interest, we're going to look for ways to make it part of our very active train network," he told New Jersey residents.

Rutherford and East Rutherford apparently seek to buy the property from Norfolk Southern, and that's fine and proper, assuming owner NS might be amenable. Rutherford trail activists may or may not want to observe such legal niceties; they want a trail and more, demanding local officials "pursue all possible measures at your disposal to restore public use of this Trail and open it up to the public on a permanent and legal basis as the Rutherford Highline Rail Trail."

Restore public use? It's private property. (I thought someone claimed Norfolk Southern has owned it for 30 years!)

When both Norfolk Southern and CSX moved operations into the Northeast following the partition of Conrail, I often quipped that both would have to update their system maps, removing "There be dragons" from the big empty spots at the top of their respective charts. "There be inconsistent dunderheads" might have been the better suggestion when it comes to New Jersey.

To torture a metaphor: If sauce for the homeowner goose (king or queen of the castle) isn't sauce for the NS Thoroughbred ...

Douglas John Bowen

Douglas John Bowen is Managing Editor of RAILWAY AGE. He also served as Editor of Intermodal Age from 1989 to 1991, and has held various positions at Inbound Logistics magazine, High Speed Transport News, The Journal of Commerce, and CNN/Money. Bowen began his journalism career at the Asbury Park Press, a New Jersey daily newspaper. A graduate of Rutgers University, Bowen resides in Hoboken, N.J. He served as president of the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers (NJ-ARP) from 1987 to 2000 and again from 2004 to 2010, serving on the NJ-ARP board from 1984 until 2012; he remains a member of the statewide organization.