Replacing a nearly 100-year-old railroad bridge in Columbus that runs across Flatrock River near Noblitt Park could be the most visible local sign and the costliest part of a $70 million-plus rail upgrade.
The project is planned by CSX Transportation and the Louisville & Indiana railroads, affecting L&I’s 106 miles of track between Louisville and Indianapolis.
If the project wins federal approval later this year, the two railroad companies expect to start construction in 2015 on an estimated seven-year effort to strengthen L&I’s rails and give Jacksonville, Fla.-based CSX a direct north-south route through Indiana for the first time.
Officials at CSX, which would foot the bill for construction and pay another $10 million for right of way, said being able to use the L&I’s tracks once they’re repaired to carry longer, heavier trains would reduce congestion on its other lines and shave hours off deliveries throughout the Midwest.
The aging truss bridge targeted for replacement in Columbus runs through a wooded area on the fringe of Noblitt Park near 17th Street. Railroad officials say the bridge would be rebuilt so it could handle heavier trains moving at higher speeds. Trains currently have to travel across the bridge at 5 mph for safety reasons, officials said.
On Tuesday, City of Columbus-Bartholomew County planning director Jeff Bergman said he met with Louisville & Indiana Railroad officials briefly and learned that trains will be able to move more swiftly through Columbus after the bridge is replaced. He said railroad officials told him the maximum speed through town at that point would probably reach about 25 mph.
Mayor Kristen Brown said her administration’s chief concern at this point is to learn how many trains would pass through Columbus — and at what speeds — once the improvement project is done.
“We have two main intersections — State Road 46 at Highway 11 and 200 South at Highway 11 — that we’re most concerned about,” the mayor said.
Others see the railroad work as something that would boost long-term economic
Former Columbus Mayor Fred Armstrong, who was briefed on the project two years ago when he sat on the Metropolitan Planning Organization, said the overall $70 million to $90 million in rail work would bring the Louisville & Indiana Railroad’s 106 miles of track — the line’s entire inventory — up to modern standards.
“I was hoping this would have already been done,” Armstrong said. “The rail system we currently have is pretty outdated.”
He said better rail service would be an additional asset that Columbus’ government and civic leaders could use to recruit new companies to the area.
Two years ago, in a letter dated July 8, 2011, Armstrong and other members of the Metropolitan Planning Organization then endorsed the rail work, saying it would also “provide a much-needed infusion of capital” for short-line rail companies such as L&I.
The former mayor said he doesn’t anticipate any disruption to traffic or neighborhoods when the Flatrock River rail bridge is replaced since it runs on the edge of Columbus, largely through green space.
“Trains have to cross that bridge very, very slow right now,” Armstrong said. “We haven’t done the work we should have done to get our rail system fixed in this country.”
“It’s a significant upgrade to the rail lines,” said Zack Ellison, a former Columbus City Council member and retired Cummins executive who was briefed on the project in the past. “It’s a significant upgrade to the rail lines to handle heavier loads. The frequency of rail traffic through the city goes up to about 12 or so trains a day.”
Ellison said the improved rail lines would go past the industrial park near Walesboro and could be another magnet to draw more businesses there.
“It would give them a lot of possibilities of rail spurs running in there with heavier loads and getting some additional industry in there. With the old track system, we were pretty limited in what we could carry, tonnage-wise,” Ellison said.
The Brown administration also is studying possible uses of a defunct city airport at Walesboro just east of the existing industrial park.
More trains, more traffic
CSX, which operates in nearly two dozen states, has been running much of its Louisville-Indianapolis train traffic on a more easterly route via Cincinnati through the busy Queensgate switching yard there.
Eventually using the L&I rails — and reducing the number of rail cars at Queensgate — “will improve transit times, efficiency and terminal fluidity on traffic throughout the CSX Transportation system,” the railroad told federal regulators earlier this year.
Still, some government officials in central Indiana have raised environmental issues or have called for more elaborate warning signals at railroad crossings that are likely to see substantially more train traffic when the rail upgrades are completed.
For instance, the Johnson County Highway Department wrote CSX, calling on the railroad to add more warning devices at crossings on surface streets in light of the possibility of faster trains using the tracks.
Mark Richards, city engineer in Greenwood, said five of seven rail crossings in that community are in residential areas. He has asked for warning signals at the crossings, ranging from simple stop signs to overhead lights, lights on poles and warning bells.
Richards also requested that sound barriers be built near residential areas or for the railroads to consider train schedules that would limit disturbances for neighborhoods near the tracks.
“You’re going to have increases in noise from the locomotives because they’re traveling at a faster speed. Crossing signal bells will be going off more frequently,” Richards contended.
But Peter Gilbertson, chairman of the Louisville & Indiana Railroad, said noise pollution might not be a big issue.
The new rails will be continuously welded rail instead of the existing bolted-together steel rails, so the noise that trains make will be lessened after the upgrades, he said. That style of track allows trains to travel more quietly because they don’t bump against joints every 15 feet or so, Gilbertson said.
“It’ll handle faster speeds. It’ll handle heavier cars. It’s safer. It’s superior in every way,” the rail executive said.
Railroads see cost savings
The two railroads would remain separate businesses after the upgrades, but in exchange for paying virtually all the building costs, CSX would get to run its trains on the Louisville & Indiana’s routes on a permanent basis. CSX hauls automotive parts and vehicles, crushed stone, fertilizer, appliances, chemical and paper products and other goods over about 21,000 miles of rail lines in the U.S. and Canada.
After the project, freight trains would be able to operate at speeds up to 49 mph with 286,000-pound carloads, including double-stacked containers. Those speeds are about double what L&I’s existing rail lines are allowed to handle.
CSX plans to reroute some trains from a number of its other lines in five states to ease congestion and move more traffic onto the upgraded tracks, the company has told federal regulators.
For instance, CSX said it envisions running 13 additional trains per day between Louisville and Seymour, plus 15 trains per day between Seymour and Indianapolis. The company estimates it could save $11.8 million per year with the moves.
The companies don’t need local approval to overhaul the track system, add more trains or increase train speeds, Gilbertson said. Still, the company will consider community needs and make one-on-one visits with mayors or other local officials as planning progresses, he said.
“It just makes sense to do. We can’t move our railroad,” Gilbertson said. “It is crucial that we have good relationships in the communities.”
Until mid-September, residents and public officials can write letters expressing concerns to the Surface Transportation Board, the federal agency that oversees the railroads. That board is expected to decide by the end of the year if the Indiana rail project can go forward.
Among factors it will consider are the likely effect on business competition and whether the project would damage the environment or hurt endangered species’ habitats.
Kate Knable of The Daily Journal of Johnson County contributed to this story.