Future Rail Mobility & Reliability
Mobility & Reliability Overview
Much of the coordination necessary between railroads and public agencies revolves around addressing issues at rail grade crossings.
Railroads would like to eliminate as many at grade crossings as possible, while doing so could potentially impact traffic flow to roads within local communities. The balance between rail freight movement and roadway mobility continues to be a challenge and is expected to remain one for the foreseeable future.
Future Rail Freight Forecasts
In the OKI region, rail traffic growth is expected to continue for both Class I railroads (CSX and Norfolk Southern (NS)) and regional, short line railroads (Indiana & Ohio Railway (IORY), Central Railroad of Indiana (CIND), Cincinnati Eastern Railroad (CET), and Indiana Eastern Railroad (IERR)). New rail-oriented development (particularly those served by short line and increased traffic at existing facilities) is anticipated in the near and mid-term future. Information gathered through discussions with railroads for this freight plan has provided insights into what railroads are expecting of rail freight growth.
Increases in revenue carloadings is expected to continue. As an example, the CET has seen a nearly 300 percent increase in carloadings since 2015. It is expecting a continued significant increase as a new Nestlé Purina manufacturing facility is developed in Clermont County; as containerized cargo at the Winchester Ag facility in Adams County increases; and as their recently constructed transload terminal in Milford continues to attract limestone and aggregate market share.
Nestlé Purina PetCare Plant being developed in Clermont County with Rail Access
Source: Clermont County, Ohio. Office of Community and Economic Development. (2023).
The Class I railroads have noted that they are expecting increased traffic within and through their yards at Queensgate (CSX) and Gest Street (NS). CSX is expecting increased movements in chemicals and fertilizers, as a recent purchase of a railroad in New England is linked to their Cincinnati rail network, which will increase efficiency with shipments routed through the OKI region for Midwest distribution.
Future Rail Commodity Volumes
Freight volume forecasts by commodity have been developed by the United States’ Bureau of Transportation Statistics through the Freight Analysis Framework (FAF). The FAF provides estimated freight forecasts using the 2017 Commodity Flow Survey (CFS) and international trade data from the Census Bureau as a base. It also uses forecasted data using various sources from the agriculture, extraction, utility, construction, service, and other sectors. The database’s most recent version includes new annual estimates for 2020, with revisions to coal exports, and reflects data collected during the COVID pandemic.
FAF data shows that the eight-county tristate region is expected to see a significant increase in rail volume over the next 30 years, particularly in fertilizers and other commodities associated with agricultural uses, petroleum products (which is categorized under Coal-n.e.c.), and plastics.
Future Markets Impacting Rail Operations
With the Class I rail industry adopting operational strategies that are producing longer trains traveling over longer distances, future markets are being tapped that impact the OKI region. Industry representatives anticipate steady growth in the movement of chemical products from the northeast to the OKI region for distribution. These changes in rail freight transportation open the door for related manufacturing of products, such as pharmaceuticals, food and beverage, plastics, adhesives, and lubricants.
In addition, railroad companies anticipate an increase in their market share from the truck freight industry, especially in automobiles, manufactured goods, grains, sweeteners, and vegetable oils. This anticipated modal shift is a result of growing congestion forecasts for roadways -- not just in the OKI region but throughout the country -- that will impact truck’s current competitive advantages of travel time, reliability, and shipping costs.
To increase overall freight transportation efficiency in the region, as well as grow its market share, regional railroads are looking toward improved coordination with river terminal operators for transloading opportunities. Today, transloading at river terminals in the OKI region is completed primarily between barge and truck. Movement to rail would provide the added benefit of reducing the number of trucks on secondary access roads, which are often not designed for heavy vehicle traffic.
Conversely, the shipment of coal, a historical mainstay commodity for railroads, is expected to continue its decline. For generations, coal has been the cheapest and most stable energy source, since it can easily be stockpiled and used as needed, unlike natural gas and renewables. The cost of natural gas has decreased significantly in recent years and electric power plants continue to transition from coal to cleaner fuels, which emit fewer greenhouse gases, to comply with higher environmental standards. Due to the region’s extensive rail network and proximity to mining areas in Kentucky and West Virginia, as well as the continued use of coal by China for its immense energy needs, the OKI’s rail network will continue to transport coal for the foreseeable future, though at a diminishing rate over time.
Future Rail Performance
Rail freight reliability and congestion relate to the performance of our freight rail network. These conditions threaten the future growth potential of freight rail across the OKI region from reaching its highest future potential.
Rail Freight Reliability
Rail service has come into the spotlight, particularly after the nation saw how much it relies on the movement of goods during the COVID pandemic; and, more recently, when faced with a potential shutdown due to stalled labor negotiations. Rail service issues prompted the Surface Transportation Board (STB) to hold a public hearing on ‘urgent issues’ in April 2022 to address inconsistent and unreliable service throughout the country. The four largest Class I railroads, CSX, NS, Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway (BNSF), and Union Pacific (UP), were tasked with developing service recovery plans and providing weekly performance reports to the STB.
Most of the service issues are attributed to workforce reduction because of Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR) service models, which build larger trains to travel over longer distances and consolidate shipments. This process reduces the number of employees necessary for loading/unloading and transporting rail cars. According to the STB, over the last six years, Class I railroads have cut their workforce by 29%, or about 45,000 employees. Railroads are now trying to recruit new workers to improve their service levels. This issue was confirmed by railroad representatives in the OKI region through interviews conducted for this freight plan.
Rail Freight Congestion
Through discussions with rail freight representatives, there were few bottleneck constraints identified within the OKI region. The Indiana & Ohio Railway noted a bottleneck associated with the single, northbound/southbound mainline track that provides the only access into and out of Cincinnati thereby restricting rail movements to one train at a time.
In addition, CSX has indicated that the physical constraints of the Spring Grove Avenue Railroad Bridge delays trains during periods of high peak rail traffic. Two rail tracks to the north and south of the bridge narrow to a single track for the about 1500-foot-long raised bridge. The cost of replacing the bridge has prevented CSX from advancing this improvement option. As an alternative temporary improvement, CSX has implemented operational modifications to circumvent the bridge’s capacity limitations and assist in minimizing train travel time delays.
Aerial view of CSX’s Spring Grove Avenue Railroad Bridge
Source: The Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments (OKI). (February 2022).
Norfolk Southern has indicated congestion at its Gest Street Yard which is its primary containerized cargo facility in the region. Past improvements to enable double stack clearances between Cincinnati and Columbus have helped grow its intermodal container operations in the region. However, capacity improvements to the north are needed to move trains more quickly in and out of the yard. In addition, truck congestion between the rail yard and the interstate system remains a concern. However, Norfolk Southern says it does not have a significant impact currently on their operations.
Future Potential Impact of Passenger Rail
There has also been growing interest in increased passenger rail service on the region’s freight rail infrastructure. The State of Ohio’s 3C+D (Cincinnati, Columbus, Cleveland, and Dayton) passenger rail plan has recently seen renewed interest, as new funding streams through the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) become available. The proposed passenger rail service would operate on freight rail lines to access Cincinnati. Freight rail operators have expressed willingness to be a part of the established process for allowing passenger trains along their right-of-way, with due consideration given to safety and freight rail operations. The addition of passenger rail would require significant, yet-to-be defined infrastructure improvements to ensure continued safe and efficient freight rail operations.