Tri-State must reassert its transportation role

April 11, 2019

The Tri-State area received some more bad news on the economic front last Friday when CSX Transportation notified 113 people at its locomotive repair shop at Raceland, Kentucky, that their services are no longer needed. Considering the way CSX has been cutting back on its equipment and operations the past couple of years, the closure wasn’t much of a surprise, but that does not ease the pain.

“Over the past three years, the volume of work performed at the Russell Locomotive Shop has declined substantially, through no fault of the employees who work there,” CSX said in a prepared statement.

Tim Gibbs, president and CEO of the Ashland Alliance, issued a statement Friday in response to the closing.

“This is a facility that repaired locomotive engines from all over the country and serviced the coalfields of Appalachia. There has been a reset on the economy from natural energy extraction, and this is one more painful reality that we must face together,” Gibbs said.

CSX denied that the long downward trend in coal shipments across its system was the prime reason for the closing.

“CSX has been phasing older locomotives out of its fleet, and that in turn has reduced the need for repairs and maintenance resources,” an email from a CSX spokesperson said.

There can be no doubt that the decline in coal shipments has reduced the need for locomotive power on the CSX system, but many things are going on within the company. When he became CEO a few years ago, the late Hunter Harrison implemented his Precision Scheduled Railroading model, which reduced the need for as many trains, yards and other support facilities that the railroad had relied on for years. As of the end of 2018, CSX owned 3,900 locomotives. At a recent investor conference, a CSX executive said CSX has 2,865 of those in active service. That’s a lot of equipment in storage, being leased to other railroads or sitting at a repair shop such as the one in Huntington and waiting to be stripped of parts.

In recent years, CSX has reduced the number of people working at its Huntington shop by 70, and it shut down its administrative office in downtown Huntington, which affected 121 jobs.

CSX isn’t the only company in the region cutting back. Earlier this year, AK Steel announced what people expected but hoped they would never hear — the permanent idling of its Ashland works.

Norfolk Southern says it is moving to the Precision Scheduled Railroading model over the next one to two years. How that affects its operations in Kenova, Portsmouth, Ohio, Williamson, West Virginia, and elsewhere in this region remains to be seen.

For decades the Tri-State area has been a major player in the transportation of many types of commodities. It’s where railroads and rivers meet, where large gas pipelines move product and where many of the highest-voltage electrical transmission lines in the Ohio Valley are located. The FedEx hub at Tri-State Airport has added to this role.

Much of this region’s transportation infrastructure has been based on the mining, hauling and use of coal. As coal suffers, so does the region.

What’s the answer? How do we replace those jobs? If there were a simple, quick and easy answer, someone would have found it already. This may be one of those things that requires a generational change in thinking. In any case, we have a big stake in many forms of the transportation industry, and we can’t afford to let it go without a fight.