By KATE KNABLE
Daily Journal of Johnson County
Thirteen more trains could zip through Johnson County every day going twice as fast as residents are used to if a joint venture between two railroad companies gets federal approval.
Two or three trains currently travel the Louisville & Indiana Railroad’s tracks on a direct north-south route from Indianapolis to Louisville each day at speeds of up to 25 mph. The rail line runs just east of U.S. 31 through Southport, Greenwood, eastern Whiteland, Franklin, Edinburgh and other Indiana cities and towns until the line ends in Louisville.
The Jeffersonville-based railroad has applied for federal approval to partner with a national, publicly traded train transportation company to overhaul the rail line and increase train traffic. If approved this year, construction could begin in 2015. Johnson County officials are concerned that more trains and faster speeds could cause safety problems at road crossings and bring more noise to neighborhoods near the tracks.
The upgrades would allow Jacksonville, Fla.-based CSX Transportation to run 13 or more additional trains on the railroad at speeds of 40 mph, with a maximum speed of 49 mph. When and how often the trains run would vary by the day.
The railroad’s speed limit increases will happen over the course of months and in increments of 5 mph, said Mike Stolzman, president of the Louisville & Indiana Railroad. The trains’ speed limits on the line will vary based on curves and the condition of the track, Stolzman said.
The railroad companies plan to spend up to $90 million to replace about 106 miles of old steel rail and a bridge. As part of the project, all railway crossings will be upgraded, and additional safety features could be added as part of that work, officials said.
Homes and businesses neighbor the railroad tracks, which cross at least eight roads in unincorporated parts of Johnson County, seven streets in Greenwood, including Main Street and Worthsville Road, and five streets in Franklin, including Commerce Drive and Graham Street.
Increasing the number of trains traveling through Johnson County and how fast they are going could cause safety concerns for motorists crossing the tracks, said Luke Mastin, director of the Johnson County Highway Department.
Outside of the county’s cities and towns, railroad crossings are marked with only stop signs and road markings, Mastin said.
Fence rows and trees can block motorists’ view until they stop at the tracks, he said. He is concerned about motorists who disregard the stop signs and don’t spot an approaching train from a distance, he said.
Faster trains generally have fewer collisions at crossings, said Peter Gilbertson, chairman of the Louisville & Indiana Railroad.
“For crossing incidents, with the slower speeds, you have more crossing incidents,” Gilbertson said. “If you stop at a crossing and see a train coming sort of slow, some people try to beat it.”
Officials are also concerned about traffic backups more trains would cause.
More trains in Greenwood would cause backups at railroad crossings on Main Street, Worthsville Road and Stop 18 Road, director of community development services Mark Richards said.
Noise could also be a problem in the neighborhoods where bell signals at road crossings will go off more often, Richards said.
But railroad officials said the new tracks should be quieter than the bumpy old one.
Letters from Mastin, Richards and other Indiana officials about their concerns and upgrades they want done are included in the railroad companies’ application to the Surface Transportation Board, the federal regulator of railroads.
The companies are not required to respond to the letters and address each of the concerns, local officials said. The Surface Transportation Board will consider the local letters as part of the approval.
CSX Transportation and the Louisville & Indiana Railroad do not need state or local approvals to replace tracks and increase train traffic, but the federal board will consider local concerns and the two companies plan to talk more with community leaders, Gilbertson said.
The company’s trains haul grain, lumber, fertilizers, automobile parts, scrap steel and cement, Gilbertson said. The trains also transport U.S. Army trucks and tanks to and from Camp Atterbury in Edinburgh.
CSX Transportation hauls similar materials and delivers to customers, such as General Electric in Indianapolis and Ford in Louisville.
The new tracks would allow train cars to carry heavier loads on the route, but neither company would haul hazardous material into the area that could be toxic when inhaled, said Amanda Rice, spokeswoman for the Louisville & Indiana Railroad.
Louisville & Indiana Railroad trains currently carry small amounts of hazardous materials, such as ethanol and chemicals used in detergents, Gilbertson said.
Train lengths on average might be longer on the new track, but engines hauling 100 to 120 train cars aren’t uncommon on the rail line now, and most companies don’t run trains longer than 120 cars, Gilbertson said.
The companies would remain separate businesses, but CSX Transportation would spend up to $90 million to upgrade the railroad and pay the Indiana company $10 million. In exchange, CSX would permanently get to run its trains on the Louisville & Indiana Railroad’s rail line.
Almost all of the line’s aged steel rails will be replaced if the partnership gets federal approval, Gilbertson said.
The Louisville & Indiana Railroad Co. has owned the 106 miles of the rail line since 1994. Trains have hauled freight on the railroad for years, dating back to the Civil War, he said.
The company’s tracks are 70 to 80 years old and span a more than 100-year-old bridge near Columbus, where trains currently have to travel 5 mph, Gilbertson said.
The proposed upgrades include replacing the 100-year-old bridge and putting in continuously welded rail in place of the existing jointed rail. After tracks are upgraded, trains will be able to go up to 60 mph and can handle train cars bearing the industry standard weight of 280,000 pounds, rather than the 268,000 pounds per car Louisville & Indiana is limited to hauling currently.
That style of track allows trains to travel more quietly because they don’t bump against joints every 15 feet or so, Gilbertson said.
“It’ll handle faster speeds. It’ll handle heavier cars. It’s safer,” he said. “It’s superior in every way.”
Partnering with CSX Transportation means the smaller company can upgrade its rail line and possibly get more business.
“The cost of that is significant, and it’s beyond what we can afford to do,” Gilbertson said.
The deal also allows CSX Transportation to move freight more efficiently between Indianapolis and Louisville. The Louisville & Indiana’s route is the only direct railroad route between the two cities, and the company’s trains would not stop between the cities.
CSX Transportation’s current routes are too busy for more trains and freight. Shipping freight on the upgraded railroad would cut the company’s delivery times by about 130 hours per day and save $11.8 million annually, according to the companies’ paperwork filed with the Surface Transportation Board.
The two companies have been talking about the partnership for four or five years, but the recession slowed any progress, Gilbertson said.
The Surface Transportation Board by law has to address the companies’ plan by December. The board will study whether the partnership will give companies a competitive advantage and how the construction project could impact local wetlands and wildlife.
If they get federal approval, the companies then can begin work to rebuild the rail line.
The companies’ plans include replacing the tracks, building a new bridge and updating Louisville & Indiana Railroad’s dispatch system within seven years. Company officials declined to provide specific cost breakdowns, but said the bridge will be the single most expensive part of the project and will take the longest to build.
The dispatch system is how the railroad company follows a train’s travel progress and ensures tracks are clear of one train before another enters that section of track. Dispatchers work like air traffic controllers at airports. Currently, dispatch workers for the Louisville & Indiana Railroad keep paper notes and make manual entries into computers, Stolzman said.
The new system will be fully computerized and show on a map where trains are safely allowed to be at a given time, Stolzman said.