2023 Small-Road Standouts

Written by Railway Age Staff
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Short Line of the Year Napolean, Defiance & Western

RAILWAY AGE, MARCH 2023 ISSUE: We are pleased to present our 2023 Short Line & Regional Railroads of the Year, which will be honored at the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association convention in New Orleans in April.

Short Line of the Year: Napoleon, Defiance & Western

Railway Age’s 2023 Short Line of the Year is the Napoleon, Defiance & Western (NDW), a railroad that has gone from “worst to first” with character and grit, nearly $13 million in recent public and private investment, and now with a bright business outlook.

“On behalf of the Patriot Rail team, we deeply appreciate this recognition across all short lines in the United States,” Patriot Rail President and CEO John E. Fenton said. “Not long ago, the NDW faced bleak abandonment, but with the strong support of so many stakeholders building on the financial commitment of the Ohio Rail Development Commission (ORDC) and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), we have revitalized this railroad. The new NDW and the benefits it will deliver to customers and communities in Ohio exemplifies what can be accomplished everywhere with dedicated partnership and public/private investment in short line railroads.”

NDW traces its roots back to the Wabash Railroad, established in 1855 to fulfill the vision of Indiana and Ohio business leaders to form an unbroken railway connecting Toledo, Ohio, with the Mississippi River. The Wabash served an important role during the Civil War hauling troops, food and supplies, and subsequently survived the Great Depression and both World Wars. Known as the “Heart of America,” it served as a key economic driver for the Midwest.

Later in the 20th century, divestment, abandonments and deferred maintenance devastated the line, leading to the unfortunate distinction as the “Worst Railroad in America.”

“The exceptionally degraded tie conditions and worn rail resulted in trains moving at a walking speed and often derailing three times on a single run,” according to Patriot Rail Vice President Robert Turnauckas.

Today, NDW’s 58.2 miles of right-of-way runs from Woodburn, Ind., to Liberty Center, Ohio, interchanging with Norfolk Southern at Woodburn and CSX at Defiance, Ohio. It handles primarily aggregates, chemicals, food products, plastics, lumber, pulpwood and particleboard.

In September 2022, NDW became part of Jacksonville, Fla.-based Patriot Rail Company, after Patriot acquired short line holding company Pioneer Lines. 

NDW’s prior owners forged partnerships with multiple stakeholders and especially the ORDC, enabling multiple grants to put the short line on a path to restoration and further investment. More than $9.5 million in public and private grant investment—including a 2020 Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements (CRISI) award of $4.1 million from the FRA—covered the replacement of 29,000 ties and 13 miles of rail on the 29-mile Woodburn-to-Defiance alignment.

“This award from Railway Age underscores the power of partnerships,” ORDC Executive Director Matthew Dietrich said. “With NDW’s vision and willingness to commit the necessary resources to make critical infrastructure improvements, we established a win-win successful partnership for the benefit of the railroad, their customers and employees, our communities, and the state. This is a well-deserved honor, and we look forward to continuing the partnership into the future to rebuild the NDW’s entire line.”

The now-completed CRISI grant and other investment enabled upgrading NDW’s Woodburn-Defiance segment from FRA excepted track to Class 1 safety status, allowing the railroad to operate longer trains at two-to-three times previous speeds to better serve customers. NDW, once a contender for the highest derailment rate of any rail line in the U.S., has achieved zero reportable derailments and zero reportable incidents on the rehabilitated alignment since the completion of the project in July 2022.

With an improved railroad, NDW revamped its marketing strategy to grow current customer carloads and attract new business. NDW fortified strategic relationships with state and local economic development agencies and started new conversations with current customers to rebuild confidence in the line.

“The NDW means a lot to Campbell’s Soup,” said Gavin Serrao, Regional Logistics Manager for Campbell’s Soup Napoleon. “The CRISI project completed last year meant a lot to us in terms of having efficient and timely deliveries of our cars and it also opened up a lot more future opportunities for growth.”

An improved online presence and a media blitz at each milestone of the reconstruction helped to create excitement about the railroad, according to NDW. Strategic engagement plans began to draw new business to the line, while town halls amplified NDW’s commitment to the community and highlighted services the railroad could offer to local businesses. “All of these efforts showed immediate results,” Turnauckas noted. “Last year, Tessenderlo Kerley, Inc. (TKI) broke ground on a new multi-million-dollar fertilizer plant, and APackaging Group (APG) announced plans to construct a $49 million, 800,000 square-foot facility along NDW; both are slated to create more than 150 jobs in the community.”

“NDW’s commitment to helping customers meet their needs and investment in revitalizing the rail services illustrates their dedication to transforming the railroad industry,” TKI Executive Vice President Russell Sides said. “We are proud to partner with the NDW and Patriot Rail as we work together to safely and efficiently deliver essential nutrients to farmers, and we look forward to our continued partnership.”

TKI and APG investments, coupled with renewed line confidence, are expected to drive an 18% year-over-year increase in NDW carloads in 2023.

“There’s still work to be done,” Fenton said. “The first CRISI award was a great outcome, and we found an amazing partner with the ORDC. Together, we look to finish the job and improve the remainder of the line.”

ORDC’s current pending CRISI request with NDW would bring the Defiance-to-Napoleon segment up to FRA Class 1 track status, elevating safety, efficiency and capacity.

“Short line railroads such as the NDW help drive the economy in every part of America, creating jobs, protecting the environment, improving safety, and reducing the burden of heavy freight on highways,” Fenton added. “At Patriot Rail, we will continue to leverage the deep rail expertise of our team to provide outstanding service to our customers. The entire short line rail sector looks forward to the opportunity to build more choice, resiliency, and sustainability for rail shippers in states across the nation through the same kind of dedicated public-private investment partnership that made the NDW Woodburn-to-Defiance transformation such a success.”

Regional of the Year: ArcelorMittal Infrastructure Canada Railway

The ArcelorMittal Infrastructure Canada (ArcelorMittal) Railway in northern Quebec has earned Railway Age’s 2023 Regional Railroad of the Year award. Launched in 1960 and owned by global steelmaker ArcelorMittal, it is an independent system that operates 260 miles of single track. The railroad links the Mont Wright iron ore mine to Port-Cartier with a branch to the Fire Lake iron ore mine, and includes 20 bridges and five tunnels following rock slopes and rivers. Some 50% of the main line is curved, with a maximum curvature of seven degrees. The maximum loaded grade is 0.40% while the maximum empty grade is 1.34%. Its busiest section tops 85 million gross tons.

Each year, ArcelorMittal Railway hauls approximately 26 million tons of iron ore concentrate and 15 million tons of raw ore as well as supplies for the mine and timber for a third-party sawmill. For several years, a combination of long (210-car) and short (160-car) trains were used, but since 2022, only long trains are used. Consequently, six 210-car trains now leave every 1-1⁄2 days for the northern mining complex to haul back iron ore concentrate. Each carries 27,000 tons, for an average ratio of 9,000 tons per locomotive (two at the head end and one at the rear).

ArcelorMittal Railway runs 1,260 railcars out of a fleet of 1,323—whose average age is more than 40 years—with an availability of 95% and utilization of 94%. ECP braking is used on its railcars and distributed power on consists.

The availability of its fleet of 37 locomotives has also increased by 10% in the last year, thanks to a focus on reliability and a robust maintenance program, ArcelorMittal says.

The railroad’s rolling stock shops perform all services, including wheel reprofiling. Average wheelset life is 750,000 miles, it reports, with some reaching more than 1 million miles.

Despite a challenging environment, the railroad’s overall track condition “is considered excellent by various internal and external audits,” according to ArcelorMittal. “A very limited number of slow orders enables a constant and optimized cycle time.”

The railroad’s maintenance-of-way program includes what it describes as “intensive” rail grinding and lubrication as well as annual replacement of more than 2,400 tons of rail and 25,000 ties in a tight window—mostly during the summer before the freezing season.

ArcelorMittal says it promotes “a culture based on empowerment and increased risk assessment from front-line workers, who use various prevention tools to reduce exposure to risk, such as pre-work analysis, equipment inspection forms, clear operational procedures, and post-trauma matrixes.”

“We are deeply honored to receive this award, which highlights the outstanding work of our teams to operate a world-class railway,” says Michael LaBrie, General Manager of ArcelorMittal Infrastructure Canada. “Above all, we must emphasize a remarkable performance in health and safety to protect our workers, which has translated into zero lost-time injury since January 2021. We are all very proud to see our efforts recognized by the major players in the North American rail industry.”

Increased technology integration for its railroad is at the heart of ArcelorMittal’s vision for the future, the company says. The railroad is currently collaborating with the RAIL Center of Excellence at Cégep de Sept-Îles, a technical college in Quebec, to develop a predictive-maintenance database for its rail infrastructure. ArcelorMittal uses a hi-rail vehicle to inspect track twice weekly. Outfitted with Pavemetrics’ automated technology, millions of high-resolution, three-dimensional images of the rail and its components are sent to the database. The college analyzes the data and produces a report that railroad employees can view on a dashboard. GPS positioning shows where defects are located, allowing employees to predict component lifespan and to intervene in a targeted manner, boosting safety and reliability.

Additionally, ArcelorMittal recently bought from Railhead Corp. a new remote monitoring and 4K video recording system for its railroad, providing real-time monitoring and access to locomotive data.

Honorable Mention: Aberdeen, Carolina & Western Railway

Railway Age in 2023 recognizes Aberdeen, Carolina & Western Railway (ACWR) with a Short Line Honorable Mention. Since its purchase by Robert Menzies in 1987, ACWR has grown from 34 miles of track, with one locomotive and two customers, to 150 miles of track today, with 36 locomotives and more than 20 customers that manufacture or distribute such commodities as plastics, poultry, dimensional lumber, wood chips, aggregate, brick, butane, ethanol and propane. 2022 served as a springboard to further growth for the central North Carolina short line.

ACWR completed the acquisition of Norfolk Southern’s Piedmont Division, which had been under a lease-purchase option by the short line since 1989. The 104-mile line between Gulf and Charlotte, N.C. consolidated ACWR’s holdings along with its Sandhills line, which connects in Star, N.C., and runs through Pinehurst to Aberdeen, where ACWR interchanges with CSX.

Also in 2022, the short line invested $10 million on multiple track expansion and improvement projects and saw rail traffic increase 7% (approximately 500 carloads) from 2021. It attributed the success to:

• Tripling the size of its Midland, N.C. Downtown transload site. Heniff Transportation operates it, transloading chemicals.

• Construction and August launch of the Midland Logistics Park. This 70-acre development includes three additional properties for rail customers, ranging from four to 15 acres, and is anchored by ACWR’s Midland Transload Yard, which can accommodate 200 railcars for transload, storage, distribution of raw materials, and finished goods, with space and equipment to handle many bulk transload commodities as well as truck self-transload operations. It is equipped with a central scale house for tenant use. Several major plastic distributors have begun operations, consolidating their Charlotte operations in Midland. The project was a collaborative effort of ACWR, its customers, and the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) Rail Division, which provided several grants.

• Strong shipments from existing customers and addition of multiple new ones. Among the new: Charlotte Pipe and Foundry, which announced in 2020 a move from downtown Charlotte to a new $325 million plant on 428 acres in Oakboro, N.C. ACWR’s maintenance-of-way and construction crews supported building the plant’s rail infrastructure. Once operations begin this year, it is projected to add 3,000 new carloads, both inbound and outbound rail traffic, per year to ACWR traffic. 

ACWR is now at work on six additional projects: two are passing sidings to accommodate unit train traffic to improve the overall fluidity of the line, and four involve ACWR-owned properties, totaling 350 acres. The short line is preparing four properties for rail-served development through partnerships with six county economic development directors and the North Carolina Railroad, which is providing “site readiness” grants. Additionally, using a $27 million CRISI grant awarded by FRA in 2020, ACWR will begin work this year on track upgrades and infrastructure improvements, allowing for increased speed, capacity and safety.

Rounding out 2022, ACWR unveiled corporate train F-unit locomotives purchased from NS (pictured above), which feature a dynamic new paint scheme. Lionel has replicated these locomotives and several ACWR corporate railcars for model train enthusiasts and the public.

“Years from now, we will look back on 2022 and remember this as the year we built the foundation for our next generation of growth,” ACWR Director of Business Development Paul Hoben said. 

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