Lehigh Railroad Eyes Expansion of Lines and Service
By Rick Hiduk
When Norfolk Southern Railroad announced on July 11 that Lehigh Railway LLC would be awarded its Shortline of the Year Award, Lehigh president Steve May, vice president of marketing and sales Jim Raffa, and operations manager Chris Reed felt vindicated for several years of precise planning, significant improvements, and ongoing investments in the former Lehigh Valley Main Line between Athens and Mehoopany.
“There are 250 shortlines that connect with Norfolk Southern, so receiving this awarded out of that large group is quite an honor for Lehigh Railway,” Raffa stated. “The award was given to Lehigh in recognition of substantial rail traffic growth and marketing efforts.”
The line had been downgraded by Conrail after the company purchased it in 1976. By the 1990s, the only industrial company regularly serviced via the local railroad was Procter & Gamble at Mehoopany. The track also fell into disrepair, resulting in lowered speeds for what little freight was moving.
Since Lehigh took over the line in January 2009, the company has stepped up maintenance and attracted new businesses. “These new customers bring new jobs to the region and also help to reduce traffic congestion in the area.”
Lehigh Railway has constructed six miles of new track at a cost of more than $2 million, with an additional $1 million spent on improvements. The company recently applied for a $700,000 state grant that will allow it to replace every fourth tie on the line. Because there are numerous shortlines vying for the same limited funds, Lehigh Railway executives sought support from businesses and municipal authorities along the line, including the Bradford County Commissioners.
The latter voted 2-to-1 to back the proposal, with the lone dissenter being commissioner Mark Smith, who felt the money could be better spent to benefit taxpayers. He also cast doubt on the figures offered by Lehigh Railway that improving the lines would remove 40,000 trucks from area highways.
“Facts are facts,” said May in response to Smith’s skepticism of the figure. “We have to turn these numbers into the Department of Transportation. We can’t make them up.”
As to whether or not public funding of the railroads leads to a gain for the community, Raffa insists that Lehigh Railway’s plans mirror the goals of the public. “We want to get trucks off the road, and we want to create jobs,” he stated. “Railroads are good for local communities.”
The proposal to replace more ties than would be done as part of regular maintenance is more of a safety issue than one of speeding up rail traffic, as has been reported in some venues, Raffa explained. The funds would allow for an acceleration of the process from replacing one out of every forty ties, which is part of the company’s general maintenance plan. Although he contends that the existing line is “more than safe,” Raffa noted that the original section of the line through Wyalusing is especially bad. Over time, the joints between rail sections “flex down” a little bit, he explained, and enhancing the maintenance project will include lifting the plates that hold the joints together to allow for a smoother ride for rail cars.
In May 2010, the Rocket-Courier reported that a new rail siding had been installed near the site of the original railroad depot at Wyalusing to create a sand transfer station to unload fracking sand used in the process of extracting natural gas by drilling companies. The yard is currently operating at peak capacity as sand is moved by conveyer belts from freight cars that include old coal cars pressed back into service by necessity into waiting tractor trailers.
Although Lehigh Railway is certain of future expansion and more rail sidings to accommodate the needs of new industries, Raffa regrets that the Wyalusing station is landlocked. The next area targeted for expansion is Meshoppen, where he noted, there is more available land than meets the eye to those who travel along Route 6.
This week, the company unveiled its latest addition—an EMD SP40-2 engine that was built by General Motors in 1975 and formerly used by Canadian Pacific Rail Road. Its electric motors are powered by a 3,000 horsepower, 16-cylinder diesel engine. Railroad fans will see it making regular runs on the 56 miles of track between the top of the state and Mehoopany.
Engineers and brothers Steve and Sam Swartz look forward to operating the new engine. The young men make the trip from Drums each day to work on the railroad. When asked what drew them into a business that was, at the time, fledgling, they replied that they had shared an interest in model railroading and couldn’t wait to drive trains when they grew up.