Carolina Southern Railroad has filed a 60-day notice to stop providing service on 14.1 miles of county-owned track between Conway and Myrtle Beach.
The railroad hasn’t operated trains on either that track or nearly all of its approximately 100-mile system in Horry, Marion and Columbus County, N.C., for more than two years, and Carolina Southern owner Ken Pippin said Tuesday that its filing came after the county asked the Surface Transportation Board to void the railroad’s ability to operate on the county’s track.
Last year, the county declared Carolina Southern in default of its agreement to operate on the county track because it had not made lease payments for three years.
The railroad’s recent notice to no longer serve the line negated any reason for the STB to rule on the county’s request. But the two-year absence of rail service along the whole route remains at the crux of a request by the three counties and a number of cities along the line that Carolina Southern be declared in violation of its common carrier responsibility to serve customers.
Ultimately, the governments would like the STB to force Pippin to sell the railroad.
Pippin said he doesn’t think its voluntary cessation of service along the county line weakens the railroad’s case in the STB action over the remainder of the line.
“We haven’t admitted anything,” Pippin said. “We can still serve anybody.”
Carolina Southern shut down service on along its route after federal bridge inspectors found that some of the line’s bridges needed work to make them safe for rail traffic. Pippin said he doesn’t have the approximately $2 million needed to make the repairs and attempts to get federal grants for the work have not been successful.
The lack of service has caused customers such as Metglas in the Atlantic Center to make other, more expensive arrangements to get raw materials in and finished product out. Georgia Pacific has a lumber mill along Carolina Southern’s tracks in Columbus County and has yet to permanently close the plant, which was idled during the economic downturn.
Since the economy began improving, the company has reopened some of its idle plants and declared others permanently closed.
Horry County Chairman Mark Lazarus said he had not heard that Carolina Southern has given notice to abandon service on the county-owned track.
He said he wasn’t sure of the filing’s significance, but he and Pippin each said the county-owned line could not generate revenue without using Carolina Southern’s track.
“We’ve got to have the connection to get the goods in and out of here,” Lazarus said.
Doug Wendel, chairman of a two-state railroad committee formed to try to restore service along Carolina Southern’s system, noted that just two of Carolina Southern’s customers are located along the line the railroad officially won’t serve after March 11.
He and Pippin said the county-owned portion of the line could also be useful to get workers from Marion and Dillon counties to jobs along the Grand Strand, but a commuter line that ran just from Conway to Myrtle Beach wouldn’t be economically feasible.
“As long as the roads are not totally intolerable, (commuters) aren’t going to get out of their cars,” Wendel said.
Pippin said there was discussion a couple years ago of using the track to get workers from Marion and Dillon to Grand Strand jobs. Like Wendel, he didn’t see a future in trying to run service only between Conway and Myrtle Beach.
“By the time you get to the Atlantic Center,” he said, “you’re already there.”