Railroad decline mirrors industrial drop

By Thomas Wilson
star staff

ÊÊ  Once Southern served the South.
  Today, the local railroad industry has taken a path of decline mirroring the manufacturing industry in Southern Appalachia.
  Industry veteran Ken Marsh gave members of the Elizabethton Kiwanis Club a history lesson Tuesday afternoon on the relationship between rail transportation and economic development in Southern Appalachia.
  Elizabethton was once home to three railways when lumber industry played a prominent role in the area's economic development during the late 19th and early 20th century. The East Tennessee & Western North Carolina (ET&WNC), the Virginia Southwest rail line and the Laurel Fork Railroad all served Elizabethton with rail service.
  The ET&WNC was chartered in 1866 and eventually extended from Johnson City to Boone, North Carolina. The railroad changed over the decades into its modern day East Tennessee Railway (ETRY).
  "The East Tennessee was the last company to operate steam engines in the whole area," said Marsh.
  Not so long ago, ETRY still served local industries such as Alcoa, Inland Paperboard and Packaging and the Paty Lumber Company among others. Today, those Elizabethton industries are out of business and rail transportation to Elizabethton has been discontinued by ETRY's parent company, Rail Management, Inc.
  "Those closures speak volumes about what is happening to our industrial base," said Marsh, a retiree of the Eastman Chemical Company where he worked with the operation of its railroad system in Texas. "Things are really changing."
  ETRY donated a portion of its right-of-way along E Street and across East Elk Avenue in downtown Elizabethton to the city government earlier this year. City public works crews have been pulling up rail track during the past week.
  Despite high gasoline prices driving up shipping costs for trucking firms, diesel dependence has not fueled a massive switch from trucking to railroads, said Marsh. He also said the politics of transportation has effectively blunted the renewal of railroad service.
  "When I lived in Virginia, I thought the TEA (Tennessee Education Association) ran Tennessee," said Marsh, who is a member of the Kingsport City Council. "I was wrong, they are second; the road builders are first."
  Marsh worked for the Louisville-Nashville Railroad and later joined the Army Transportation Corps where he ran a military-operated railroad in France. He said the rise of the Clinchfield Railroad once powered turn-of-the-century economies when mountain towns such as Elizabethton and Erwin were as prosperous as their larger Tri-Cities neighbors.
  The Rittertown area of Carter County was the company town of the W.M. Ritter Lumber Company that flourished during the early 1900s.
  The Virginia Creeper Trail, now known as a popular recreation path, was once a railroad line where lumber from White Top Mountain in Virginia was transported in Abingdon. The closure of lumber peddlers such as Paty Lumber Company of Elizabethton and Gibbons Lumber Company in Kingsport forced a decline in rail transportation.
  "Wood was a big factor in Elizabethton, and in Johnson City," Marsh said. "Home Depot, Lowe's and people like that have really turned the lumber business on its head."
  The creation of the national Amtrak train service in 1971 effectively ended passenger train service in the Tri-Cities area. The Bristol Tennessee Train Station has undergone massive restoration as officials in that city hope to restore passenger train service via Amtrak to the Tri-Cities.
  Railroads still move products by the ton through the Tri-Cities area. Container cars carrying everything from nuclear waste to Coors beer rumble through the region on a daily basis, Marsh said.
  Rail companies send trains from Norfolk into Ohio through the Tri-Cities and Knoxville, as underpass tunnels through Virginia and West Virginia are too low and cost prohibitive to modify - to accommodate trains carrying double-stacked cars.
  Norfolk Southern and CSX remain profitable rail companies with strong earnings and innovations in rail transport. In fact, Marsh said, the Norfolk Southern Corporation's gross profit in the first quarter of 2004 - $534 million - was the company's highest quarterly profit ever.
  "Railroads right now are operating near full capacity," said Marsh.
  With industrial giants Eastman and the Weyerhaeuser Company still running strong, rail transportation in Kingsport remains in demand Marsh said. Dozens of coal cars pull into Eastman each day to fuel the company's manufacturing operations while Weyerhaeuser receives enormous shipments of pulpwood.
  Marsh referred to a proposal to widen the Interstate 81 corridor through the commonwealth of Virginia to three lanes. The cost of the project is estimated at $10 billion.
  A railroad line running parallel with the highway could deliver products into the Tri-Cities with a far less investment of money, Marsh said. The feasibility of rail transportation could be restored if state and local governments sought to renew an economic relationship with an industry that built towns around Southern Appalachia.
  "We have to get the railroad and the public sector together," he said, "and find something that works for everybody."