By LOU WILIN
CSX is planning to scale back operations at its big North Baltimore railyard, which has never generated the surge in Hancock County employment that was predicted when it opened six years ago.
The railroad opened the $175 million “hub” in 2011. The terminal recently underwent an expansion to improve operations.
CSX has billed the railyard as an “intermodal” operation, where loads could be transferred from one train to another, and where trucks could deliver, and pick up, loads carried by train cars.
However, its “intermodal” days appear to be numbered under new CSX leadership.
Details from the company are few.
“Since March, CSX has been implementing a transition to a new operating plan referred to as precision scheduled railroading. That transition has included a detailed operational review of facilities and services across our network … to identify opportunities to operate more efficiently and improve service,” said Rob Doolittle, assistant vice president of media and communications for CSX. “We are reviewing and revising our train plan at the North Baltimore terminal to identify opportunities to provide better service to our intermodal customers.”
CSX’s changes could put some of Findlay-Hancock County’s business growth efforts in “jeopardy,” said Tim Mayle, director of Findlay-Hancock County Economic Development.
“The announcement of that really does put in jeopardy what we’re trying to do, which is trying to increase the train-to-truck movement, trying to expand exports through grain to Asia…,” Mayle said.
Mayle said he has been seeking cost-saving uses of the railyard for companies like Whirlpool and Campbell Soup, which will open a warehouse on Findlay’s north end next year.
“What I really want to see is trains come in with containers, and those containers leave the North Baltimore facility bound for a northwest Ohio company,” he said. The flip side would be for area companies to truck goods to the railyard to be taken elsewhere in the U.S. or exported.
Now, most of the rail-shipped goods that come into the North Baltimore railyard are transferred to another train going elsewhere. Little or no exchange of goods occurs with northwestern Ohio businesses. That system does not benefit businesses surrounding the railyard.
Mayle said he will try to persuade CSX to relent from its latest plan.
He may have an uphill battle.
Since Hunter Harrison took over as chief executive officer in March, CSX has sought to run its 21,000-mile network more efficiently by idling excess equipment, closing some freight yards and running trains on a tighter schedule.
The changes have sparked complaints from CSX customers about congestion, delays, unreliable switching operations, inefficient car routings, and poor communications with CSX customer service.
It appears the North Baltimore terminal will survive, in some form. It reportedly has nearly 300 employees. That’s down from the 350 it employed in September 2016.
The terminal near North Baltimore was part of an $840 million CSX project with federal and state governments. CSX spent about $390 million, 45 percent of that at North Baltimore.
Taxpayer money paid for the rest of the “National Gateway,” mostly to increase clearances under bridges and tunnels, enabling CSX to double-stack rail cars.
The project was sold to federal and state officials as a way to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, shipping costs and highway congestion.
It also was sold to the public as a job-creation boom.
At the 2009 groundbreaking with then-Gov. Ted Strickland and other dignitaries, CSX officials said the North Baltimore terminal would spark 2,600 more jobs, mainly in trucking, warehousing and logistics, over 10 years.
CSX and state economic development leaders have maintained that the project has been on track to keep that promise.
Anticipating business growth in the North Baltimore area, the state paid $5.9 million to build an Ohio 18 truck bypass around North Baltimore in 2012.
However, Findlay-Hancock County Economic Development officials have been less impressed with the impact of the railyard.
“What’s the economic impact been? Hasn’t been much,” Mayle said when asked about it in September 2016.
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