Intermodal shipping grows through WV - Clarksburg, Morgantown: News, Sports, Weather

Intermodal shipping grows through WV

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Coal shipments by rail may be down in southern West Virginia, but more of those containers hauling high-value freight are up.

In a little over a year, southern West Virginia will play a bigger part in the worldwide movement toward container-based shipping.

Intermodal traffic on Norfolk Southern's Heartland Corridor in the third quarter was up 19 percent from the year before. The corridor runs from the ocean port at Norfolk and through southern West Virginia on its way to Cincinnati and Chicago.

The third-quarter growth comes as the Heartland Intermodal Gateway at the Wayne County community of Prichard nears completion. When it's finished in late 2014 or early 2015, the infrastructure will be in place for businesses in southern West Virginia and nearby parts of Ohio and Kentucky to join the movement to move merchandise by both rail and truck.

"The Heartland Corridor continues to be robust. We don't expect quarter-to-quarter increases of 19 percent," Donald W. Seale, chief marketing officer of Norfolk Southern, said in a conference call last week. "That would be a compounding phenomenon. But it's going to continue to be a robust growth corridor for us."

In an interview with The State Journal, Jeff Heller, vice president of intermodal and automotive for Norfolk Southern, said most of the traffic that moves on the Heartland Corridor runs from Hampton Roads to the Midwest, but it also handles some traffic from Charlotte, N.C., to Columbus, Ohio.

Prichard will open around the time upgrades to the Panama Canal are completed. Those upgrades are expected to increase shipments to East Coast ports, including Hampton Roads.

The port of Hampton Roads has picked up market share from other East Coast ports this year, and "we're the beneficiary of a good part of that," Heller said. Some containers originate overseas, are transferred to rail at Hampton Roads and eventually make their way to the West Coast, he said.

Many of the containers that move on the corridor are filled with consumer goods such as electronics, footwear and clothing, Heller said.

The Heartland Intermodal Gateway is being built by the West Virginia Public Port Authority. The port authority has contracted the marketing of the facility to the Rahall Transportation Institute, or RTI, at Marshall University.

The intermodal facility at this point is 25 percent complete, with completion scheduled for December 2014 or early 2015, said state Sen. Bob Plymale, D-Wayne, CEO of the RTI.

While consumer goods may dominate traffic on the corridor at the present, Plymale said he sees the Prichard facility as a place for rail-truck transfer for consumer goods and industrial goods.

The Huntington area and surrounding areas have a number of industries that serve the automotive, transportation and industrial equipment markets.

"We're looking at a 120-mile radius," Plymale said. "That includes about 4,000 shippers that are already using containers in some way."

When it opens, Prichard will be the only terminal between Roanoke, Va., and Columbus. James D. York, executive director of the state port authority, said Prichard will serve 60 counties in West Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio.

York described intermodal shipping as a way of getting traffic off the state's clogged highways.

And, he said, with opening about a year away, it's not too early to be signing companies that want to use Prichard's off-loading and warehouse space.