ST. CLAIRSVILLE - The railroads played a key role in the nation's development. Now, with the influx of oil and gas business, the rail industry is being called upon to continue that legacy for the Upper Ohio Valley's economy.
Belmont County Port Authority Director Larry Merry said the area's rails have risen to the occasion by continuing their traditional roles and adjusting to new needs.
"The rail industry as a whole has adapted providing a lot better service than what historically was one of the issues with rail. There's a lot better tracking," he said.
He noted the railroads operating in Belmont County including Wheeling and Lake Erie through the north of Bellaire into Benwood and Norfolk-Southern to Monroe County.
Merry pointed out the demand for coal as one major source of work for rail services.
"There's a lot of coal moved through Belmont County. That historically is one of the things that railroads did," he said.
The industry is receiving a boost through the region's natural gas boom. Whether it's moving sand for the fracking industry and pipes for oil and gas production, rail service locally is on the rise.
Aggregate stone also is in demand in Martins Ferry. "Three years ago there was really no stone being shipped in, and now there's unit trains coming in of stone, so rail is continuing to be busier and a lot more car movement and shipments are being moved through Eastern Ohio."
Coal remains West Virginia's leading product shipped by train, but a consultant wants the state to diversify what is transported on the rails as his firms prepares a 20-year rail plan.
Steve Slavick of CDM Smith, an international consulting firm with a Charleston office, said the decline in coal shipments signals a need for more products to be shipped by rail.
He said there's been increasing use of railroads by the natural gas industry, with the possibility of 30- to 100-car trains shipping material from each natural gas well site.
States such as North Dakota and Ohio have seen huge booms in rail use due to the natural gas and oil industries. What makes it difficult for West Virginia is that some areas, such as Wheeling, have removed all tracks from its borders.
Slavic said the use of rail both reduces wear and tear on roads and reduces air pollution, and it's also been found to be more economical by some industries. For example, oil refineries often prefer to use rail because it can transport their product more quickly than pipelines, which are costly and time-consuming to build, Slavick said.
He said to grow, the state's freight railroads need to expand intermodal services and connections, improve access to local industries and potential sites for industrial development and develop rail storage facilities.
West Virginia has about 2,300 miles of rail, most of it owned by Norfolk-Southern or CSX.
Slavick said to some extent the state has improved its rail systems over the years but it lacks funds to assist private railroads with development, and federal money for rail development has dried up. But he added there are grants available through the state Economic Development Authority for shortline railroad operators.
John Brown, executive director of the Brooke-Hancock-Jefferson Metropolitan Planning Commission, said he's hopeful a private industry will invest in local railroads. He noted the former Weirton Steel railyard occupies 100 acres near the Ohio River.
Brown said a private investment isn't out of the question as the Columbus & Ohio River Railroad Co. has invested millions to upgrade shortlines to serve the natural gas processing plant under construction in Scio. About 10,000 carloads of natural gas liquids are expected to be sent by rail from the plant each year.
The Blue Racer Midstream plant in Natrium, south of Moundsville, also is taking advantage of rail service with a new spur located at the site to ship natural gas liquids.
Brown noted a public-private investment was made last year to preserve a rail spur in Wellsburg that serves Eagle Manufacturing and Graphic Packaging. Repairs needed to keep the spur in service were funded with $18,000 from Graphic Packaging, $9,000 from Eagle Manufacturing, $5,000 each from the state Port Authority and Business Development Corp. of the Northern Panhandle and $1,000 from the city of Wellsburg.
DeFrank may be reached at email@example.com.