Frustration over stalled rail service in Horry County, other locales could lead to forced sale

sjones@thesunnews.comJanuary 30, 2013 

— Carolina Southern Railroad general manager Jason Pippin was told Wednesday night that officials in North and South Carolina expect to see some movement on getting the railroad running or they will have no choice but to seek a resolution from the Surface Transportation Board.

The federal board could force Pippin and his father, Ken Pippin, to sell the railroad, which the officials see as just one of two remaining possibilities to restore rail service in Horry, Marion and Columbus County, N.C. The other possibility is for the Pippins to sell the line without a federal order, but Jason Pippin said after he left the meeting that Carolina Southern is not currently discussing a sale with any potential buyer.

There likely will be no loans or grants to the company, said Doug Wendel, co-chairman of a two-state committee formed to get the railroad running again. Jason Pippin said the company does not have the money to make necessary repairs on its approximately 100 miles of track.

Committee members stopped short of setting a deadline for action from the Pippins.

“We have to have some idea where we’re going,” said committee member and Horry County Councilman Gary Loftus, “or we’ll go off on another track.”

The railroad shut down in Horry and Columbus counties last year because of problems on its bridges in both states. Officials in Horry and Columbus counties are increasingly worried about what the absence of rail service means to current industries. Gary Lanier, director of the Columbus County Economic Development Commission, said that two industries there are talking about moving their operations elsewhere, although no formal plans have been made to do so.

Lanier is particularly concerned by a Georgia Pacific operation that employs about 400 people when it is in operation. Lanier said the plant has been idled for the past three years, but he fears it will be closed permanently if it can’t reopen to supply the home construction rebound.

The railroad is running on about six miles of track in the Mullins area.

In his time before the committee, Jason Pippin said he thought he came to the meeting with good news.

Jason Pippin said that work is expected to start next week on repairing railroad crossings in North Carolina. The company also has the money to fix bridge problems in Columbus County.

The problem, though, is that trains to Columbus County must travel over a closed bridge in Nichols, so the fixes north of the border will be useless without fixes south of the border.

Wendel emphasized that filing a complaint with the Surface Transportation Board would be a very last resort. Some other committee members indicated that time is very close, but Wendel noted that the committee had never voted to seek federal intervention.

“I don’t understand the purpose of these meetings unless we’re looking at other routes,” said Jody Prince, a committee member and Horry County councilman.

Loftus said committee members hear what they feel are promises from the Pippins without any action.

“We’re at the point now that we’ve got to do something,” he said. “We keep hearing, we keep hearing, we keep hearing, but we see nothing.”

Contact STEVE JONES at 444-1765 or follow him on Twitter @TSN_SteveJones.

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