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Natural Gas a Boom for Railroads

February 26, 2013
By GLYNIS VALENTI - Staff Writer , The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register

An area's economic vitality can often be gauged by its rail service, and in the Ohio Valley, the rail business is on an upward swing.

For Greg Levy, it's all about location with rail, and the local natural gas boom is leading to good times.

"Thanks to the Marcellus and Utica shale plays, business is slowly coming back," he said.

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According to a Wheeling & Lake Erie representative, the drilling industry is having a positive effect on the rail business in this region.

Levy is vice president of marketing for Wheeling & Lake Erie Rail Co., one of two rail lines remaining in Belmont County. The company operates runs of general freight, lumber, aggregates, coal and now gas and petroleum products.

About 30 miles of track cross the Benwood Rail Bridge, travels north along the Ohio River and turns west toward the company's headquarters in Brewster, Ohio.

W&LE is the largest Ohio-based rail company and is one of the largest regional railways in the United States.

In 1871, interest in connecting Wheeling-area coal with Great Lakes shipping concerns originally brought about the railroad's formation, though it was 1877 before the line really made progress.

At that point manufacturing concerns pushed for shipping Great Lakes iron ore to the steel mills along the Ohio River.

At one time, in the mid-20th century, Norfolk Southern owned W&LE, but sold it in 1990 to a group of investors. The package included W&LE, the Pittsburgh & West Virginia and the Akron, Canton & Youngstown lines.

The sale gave the new company 576 miles of track with trackage rights acquired from Norfolk Southern, a total of 840 miles. In 1994 W&LE acquired the former Akron and Barberton Belt Railroad and part of the local Conrail "Cluster" railroad in the greater Akron, Ohio, area.

Today W&LE handles more than 100,000 carloads per year in Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Maryland for more than 120 customers. The company is privately owned and employs 325 people, and Levy notes it has been hiring more. Railway Age Magazine chose W&LE as its 2004 Regional Railway of the Year.

The other operational tracks in Belmont County are owned by Norfolk Southern, a consolidation of railways that dates back to the 1820s. Along the Ohio River, tracks run from Powhatan Point north to Columbiana County. From there, tracks head northwest toward Lake Erie and east into Pennsylvania.

Overall, the company owns more than 20,000 miles of track in 22 states and the District of Columbia.

It serves river ports, Great Lakes ports, Gulf of Mexico ports and every port on the east coast from New York to Jacksonville, Fla.

Norfolk Southern also transports freight rather than passengers. Coal is a prime revenue source, especially in this region. Coal operations include companies such as Oxford Mining, Apex Energy, Consol Inc., Buckeye Industrial Coal, Harrison Mining Corp. and Ohio Valley Coal Co. Coal, coke and iron ore make up 31 percent of Norfolk's revenue. They also transport metals, agriculture, fertilizer, consumer products and automobiles.

Efforts to recycle, reduce emissions, become more fuel efficient and practice sustainability have paid off for NS. Newsweek's Green Rankings report for 2012 moved Norfolk Southern up 217 points from 2011, putting them in the top spot for United States railroads and at 181 out of the top 500 companies.

Levy says that his company is excited about the possibilities over the next several years and adds, "Things are definitely getting better."

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