Officials eye rail development

WEIRTON – Though railroads are thought by some to be a transportation mode of the past, there’s great potential for West Virginia railways to support economic development and tourism, said an official with a consulting firm charged with developing a 20-year rail plan for the state.

Steve Slavick of CDM Smith, an international consulting firm with a Charleston office, said Wednesday the state needs to diversify the product transported by its railroads He spoke during a conference at the Weirton Holiday Inn.

Slavick noted coal is the leading product shipped by rail in the Mountain State but the amount of it is declining.

He said there’s been increasing use of railroads by the natural gas industry, with the possibility of 30 to 100 train carloads shipping material from each natural gas well site.

He noted the use of rail both reduces wear and tear on roads and reduces air pollution, but 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.

After holding public hearings on the rail plan in Weirton and other cities, CDM Smith is expected to meet next week with the state rail authority to finalize the plan.

The state 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 two 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 transported by rail from the plant each year.

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.

Slavick said through the plan, CDM Smith also will recommend improvements to the state’s passenger railroads by increasing their availability and making them more attractive to younger riders, particularly women.

He said the study differed from many he has done in the past because there was a strong interest from state officials in using trains to boost tourism. But he acknowledged the interest is understandable, given the state’s scenic terrain.

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