Railroad combatants on same track to different destinations

sjones@thesunnews.comMarch 13, 2014 

Wavy rails and weeds are predominate on this section of track near Nichols.

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Carolina Southern Railroad said in a filing this week with the federal Surface Transportation Board that its more than two-year closure of the railroad that serves Horry, Marion and Columbus County, N.C., is justified and the action of those seeking to have it declared improper has no basis in reality.

The filing is the railroad’s answer to an opening statement in the case where the three counties and other plaintiffs are asking the federal board to declare the closure illegal and to force Carolina Southern either to fix decaying bridges causing the shutdown or sell the 93-mile line.

The two sides have seen the situation completely different since the case was instituted last year, so it’s not surprising that they continue to stare each other down from opposite points of view.

What may be surprising, though, is that people on both sides are now saying they hope that things will get better in the not too distant future.

“Hopefully, the parties will agree on something pretty soon that will speed up this process,” said Ken Pippin, the railroad’s owner.

“Our dialogue’s got to continue,” said Doug Wendel, co-chairman of a two-state committee trying to restore service on the railroad.

“I’m hopeful we’ll work things out.”

If the two sides are actively working on a solution, it is happening beyond the public’s view.

Pippin said he is continuing to talk with a potential buyer of the railroad, but won’t name who it is.

Wendel, too, is circumspect about details, but the two-state committee regularly goes into executive session for at least an hour at every meeting to discuss negotiations, according to the vote taken to make the public and the press leave the sessions.

The railroad shut down in 2011 after federal bridge inspectors found problems the railroad says it can’t afford to fix. The estimate to do so is close to $2 million, and Carolina Southern’s filing this week details unsuccessful searches for public or private funding.

In fact, the railroad suggests in the filing that either railroad customers such as Metglas in the Atlantic Center or one of the county governments should have offered to fund the repairs, if they are serious that it is a vital link to area business.

Metglas has told the STB that it has spent more than $1 million in transportation charges since the railroad ceased operations. A Georgia Pacific lumber mill in Columbus County remains closed at least in part because there is no longer rail service available.

Additionally, Carolina Southern’s filing shows that Horry County is recruiting a major fiberglass manufacturer and a materials recycling operation that both need rail for their operations.

One of those has dropped out of the race because there has been no resolution to the Carolina Southern shutdown, Wendel said, but he could not recall which.

The formal closure of a railroad is known as an embargo. Carolina Southern declared its first embargo in 2011 and has renewed it annually since then.

Federal law dealing with embargoes says they cannot drag on unnecessarily, but does not set a time limit on what is reasonable.

The three counties and other plaintiffs now have the opportunity to file a rebuttal of Carolina Southern’s filing. There is no deadline after that for an STB ruling.

Representatives of the counties and other plaintiffs have said publicly that they don’t like dealing with Pippin and they would welcome a new owner of the railroad.

Pippin feels the committee has excoriated him and wants it to withdraw its action with the STB and work with him to repair his bridges.

So while both sides are hopeful the logjam of inaction will end soon, the results each would have are no closer than they were before the first complaint was filed.

Contact STEVE JONES at 444-1765.

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