Around midnight, a heavy equipment crew unloaded the shiny red R.J. Corman locomotive from a truck and guided it onto a short display track beside U.S. 501.
By daybreak Tuesday, the railroad’s public statement was ready to greet rush hour commuters.
“We wanted to surprise the people,” said Craig King, CEO of Kentucky-based Corman. “We wanted to have a little shock value. We’re a new neighbor in town and we thought, ‘How best to display it?’ … Our guys worked through the night to have it here by sunup, so I’m proud of our team. It’s emblematic of what we do: We can do the big things quickly.”
Just having a locomotive on any track in Horry County is a welcome change for local leaders, who have been trying to restore rail service since the line’s former owner, The Carolina Southern, shut down most of its operations four years ago.
“It was a long process,” Horry County Council Chairman Mark Lazarus said when presenting Corman’s leaders to council members last week. “At the 11th hour, when R.J. Corman came to the table … I told them that horseshoe flew down from Kentucky and got us.”
Although Corman had hoped to begin moving trains on local tracks this year, the recent flood washed out some of its rail lines, pushing back the start date. The restoration process was also delayed so Corman could assist its customers Norfolk Southern and CSX in Columbia after the flood damaged infrastructure there.
The company now hopes to have trains moving in Horry by February.
“There was a lot of work that needed to be completed regardless [of the flood],” said Bill Henderson, Corman’s vice president of sales and marketing. “We’ve been working to improve the infrastructure. ... We will be in operation.”
The Carolina Southern, which is headquartered in Conway, stopped most of its service in 2011 because some of its bridges didn’t meet new federal regulations. The Carolina Southern’s owners lacked the resources to make the necessary improvements.
By the time Corman officials began working on the railroad, some of the line was in rough shape.
But Corman, which operates 10 short line railroads, is used to rebuilding tracks. The company employs more than 1,600 people in 23 states and for 40 years has run its own rail construction service.
King, the CEO, said the company’s efforts will be appreciated by local business owners who have been paying more in shipping costs since the Carolina Southern shuttered its operations. The lack of rail competition, he said, boosted the price of truck transportation.
“We’ll drive freight costs down,” he said. “And we’ll add value to the community.”
This week’s delivery of a locomotive, which will be on display permanently at the corner of U.S. 501 and E. Cox Ferry Road, is intended to drive home that message.
“We’re restoring rail service to Horry County and to the Carolinas,” Henderson said. “It was just a symbol of that progress.”