Norfolk Southern Corp. announced Friday it will spend $13 million to rebuild a 10-track facility at Bison Yard in Sloan to help relieve some of the rail congestion strangling local commerce since the Conrail break up in June.
The infrastructure improvements, which include five 8,000-foot tracks to park freight cars, should be completed by December. Norfolk Southern will relocate some of its cars from a yard near Tift Street in South Buffalo, which should help relieve congestion there.
The break up of Conrail by Norfolk Southern and CSX Corp. in June resulted in what local businesses and government officials describe as tremendous rail delivery problems. Transportation tie-ups have delayed shipments of supplies and products to and from local manufacturing plants, slowing production and jeopardizing jobs.
"What we found on June 1, when we began operating our portion of Conrail, is our number of cars doubled from about 100 to between 200 and 250. We just didn't have the terminal space to handle the increase," said Rudy Husband, a spokesman for Virginia-based Norfolk Southern.
Local officials described Friday's announcement as a good first step to improving the flow of commerce to and from Western New York.
"This major allocation of funds from Norfolk Southern shows its commitment to the Buffalo area and its shippers. It is a very positive start to clearing up what has been a troubled situation," said Rep. Jack Quinn, R-Hamburg, who has been leaning on the railroads for local shippers which employ about 25,000 people.
Although the new tracks will improve Norfolk Southern operations, several major problems identified by local shippers still exist.
All Norfolk Southern and CSX trains must cross the Buffalo River on a two-track bridge, called the C-P drawbridge, near the former Republic Steel plant.
"The biggest problem to address is getting over the C-P draw. For NS to get to those new tracks, they still have to go through the C-P draw," said a representative of Buffalo Southern Railroad Inc., a local short-line carrier.
The drawbridge is owned by CSX Corp.
Norfolk Southern is "seriously considering" reopening an adjacent drawbridge on the Buffalo River, Husband said. The bridge, out of operation for about 20 years, would need several million dollars of improvements.
Ronald W. Coan, executive director of the Erie County Industrial Development Agency, said Norfolk Southern's investment at the yard near the Sloan and Cheektowaga border is a "good first step."
"Our position is, this is good news for the shippers. It's clearly the first step in addressing the congestion problems we have here," Coan said. "But it does little or nothing to address the principal problem which is lack of competition."
CSX and Norfolk Southern have a virtual monopoly in Western New York because of infrastructure problems. For example, the only rail serving the Dunlop Tire Corp. plant in Tonawanda is CSX.
Even when Dunlop has supplies shipped here by Norfolk Southern, it must pay a switching fee to have the shipment continue to Tonawanda with CSX.
"I think it's a step in the right direction," Dunlop senior transportation analyst Chris Campion said about the Bison Yard improvements. "It doesn't relieve the long term problem which is lack of competition in the area."
A coalition of businesses and local governments from Erie, Niagara and Chautauqua counties has filed a federal lawsuit asking the Surface Transportation Board to create shared access lines which could open the market to more competition. The year-and-a-half old suit is still awaiting a trial date.
The Bison Yard formerly was operated jointly by Norfolk Southern and Conrail. The yard is adjacent to Norfolk Southern's automotive, intermodal and Thoroughbred Bulk Transfer facilities.
The new track can be installed quickly because the land is already graded, Norfolk Southern officials said.
"The rebuilt Bison Yard will give Norfolk Southern the capacity and flexibility we need to efficiently serve Buffalo, Western New York and the Southern Tier. Once the yard is complete, rail customers should realize improved rail service immediately," said Jon L. Manetta.