Moving a rail yard out of central Rock Hill would not be viable due to cost and design obstacles, Norfolk Southern officials told a group of neighbors and business executives this week.
Aside from a price tag approaching $15 million to $20 million, it's unclear whether Norfolk Southern could find another suitable place that's still convenient to customers between Rock Hill and Charlotte.
"It's not something I would pursue, to be honest with you," said Brian Gwin, an industrial development manager for Norfolk Southern. "For the cost, I just don't know if it would be worth it."
Gwin spoke Thursday night to a citizens group assigned to find a solution to Rock Hill's problems with center-city train blockages. His message showed there is no simple answer - only the possibility of compromises with the current location, group members said afterward.
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Downtown boosters want an end to the gridlock caused by long lines of stopped freight cars. They support a plan that could shift train switching operations away from downtown and closer to a pair of historic mill villages.
Neighbors fear the plan would shift the problem closer to their homes, churches and schools.
At Thursday's meeting, both sides suggested moving the rail yard to an industrial area near Anderson Road - away from families, schools and churches.
It's not that easy, Gwin said. The bridge over Anderson Road offers only a single track - too narrow to accommodate added traffic. Several rows of tracks are needed for a yard, which is where trains stop to add, remove and rearrange freight cars.
Other towns along the line also don't want the problem, Gwin said.
"You're not the only city that wants to move the rail yard out of your town."
Fateful deal in the 1960s
An agreement between the city and the railroad in the 1960s set the stage for the current predicament, Norfolk Southern train master Bryan Stater told the group.
City fathers made a deal to improve traffic flow by building an overpass at Charlotte Avenue, a new bridge over Oakland Avenue and underpasses beneath Black and Johnston streets.
The pact did not bring the same changes to Main and White streets, and those two entryways have become important corridors plagued by daily train blockages.
Now, Rock Hill's proposal to shift trains away from downtown would actually create more hassle for Norfolk Southern, Stater told the group.
"It's fine the way it is for us right now - other than we're blocking downtown and we've got everybody mad at us," Stater said. "If we would do this, it's going to cost us more time.
"It's more work for us. The benefit will be we're not blocking all these (street) crossings."
The plan calls for improving safety by closing two street-level crossings in the neighborhoods and adding a new, safer crossing. But neighbors worry about reduced access.
Group members floated a range of ideas to address neighbors' concerns. They suggested a pedestrian tunnel under the tracks or a foot bridge accessible by ramps or stairs.
Neighbor Josh Gray said he'd push for heavy shrubbery - known as a green screen - to shield trains from view. After a three-hour session, the group agreed to meet again in two to three weeks to keep working.
Returning to pre-recession levels
Expect train traffic to increase in coming years, Norfolk Southern officials said.
Trains lumber through town carrying plastic resins, lumber, roofing products and other materials. At the AbitibiBowater paper mill in Catawba, freight cars arrive with wood chips and leave with newly produced reams of paper.
"Bowater's the big dog around here," Gwin said, explaining the railroad's customer base.
Norfolk Southern saw its freight business drop 25 percent when the recession hit, Gwin said, but shipments have rebounded in recent months.
Faced with high fuel prices and congested highways, companies are turning to trains to ship goods.
"There's a general resurgence - and probably has been for the last decade - in the use of rail," Gwin said.