WEIRTON - State officials were in the city Wednesday night for a public hearing on the future of freight and passenger rail service in the Mountain State.
Cindy Hunt, executive director of the State Rail Authority, said information gathered at the Weirton meeting and others they've held around West Virginia will help them formulate a plan for the future of rail service in the state over the next 20-30 years. Going forward, she said such a plan will be required to tap into Federal Railroad Administration grant money.
"We want people to understand the importance of a strong rail network and how future growth of the economy is going to be based on how rail thrives," she said.
CDM Smith's Steve Slavick, the consultants helping the state put the plan together, said rail is vital "to the movement of freight and really contributes to the economy." He said there are roughly 2,300 route miles of track in West Virginia, with Norfolk Southern and CSX owning almost 80 percent of the lines.
Slavick said coal, predictably, is the most heavily moved commodity currently, though with the growth of the oil and gas industry that could change. He said they anticipate moving 30-50 railway car loads for each well pad.
On the passenger side, he said small changes translate into big gains. Rather than sink funding into high-speed lines, he said the consensus has been that West Virginia should "build on what's there, increase ridership and build more efficient service," he said. "Get that to work and go from there."
The Legislature appropriates an average of $2 million a year to rail funding, but most of that goes to the two railroads "owned and operated by the state," he said.
While communities in southern and eastern West Virginia are more concerned about passenger service, the Northern Panhandle's focus is on freight service.
"Why not extend rail from Wellsburg into Beech Bottom because of the economic development (there)," asked Toronto resident Jim Rinaldo. "It's the same thing in Chester, the old Taylor, Smith & Taylor plant. They used to have rail service, too, but the track ends now in Newell.
"Another thing: There's a big railroad yard here in Weirton, I hear they're talking about removing it. The state should do everything in its power to keep it. Once you lose it, you're never going to get it back."
Most of the ideas on the table so far encompass passenger projects. Making the Harper's Ferry station handicap accessible by upgrading the station interior, platforms and access, for instance, would cost an estimated $2.3 million; a rail spur and station project in Hampshire County has an $22 million estimated price tag, while a station upgrade in Prince figures to cost $1 million and carving out a new "Highland Adventure of Mountain and Rail Loop" excursion route is estimated at $38 million.
Hunt said for the most part, people attending the sessions across the state "...will come interested in the passenger side but what they don't realize is ... what an intermodal facility can do for the state. If we can get trains to stop in West Virginia, that's where growth is going to come from. If the trains stop, (business) will build around (the intermodal facility)."
Those who couldn't attend the meeting can find out more about the plan or offer written comments by visiting www.westvirginiarailplan.com, she said.