Anyone who has traveled Interstate 65 through Cullman County in recent months likely has experienced one-lane traffic along stretches of highway under repair.

Officials with CSX Transportation, Inc., want to avoid that same bottleneck scenario along its main rail lines.

To guarantee that rail traffic along its main lines will proceed unimpeded, the company has announced that economic and industrial sites once taken for granted as having railroad access must in the future be re-evaluated by CSX before they can be marketed as rail-served properties.

Not only does that decision potentially affect a half dozen industrial sites in Cullman County, it could affect scores of prospective industrial sites wherever there is CSX Railroad service in Alabama.

What began as a local meeting Monday between Cullman officials and representatives of CSX grew into an all inclusive statewide gathering of economic and industrial development representatives from Mobile to Huntsville.

They, like Cullman's officials, were anxious to hear what impact the new CSX approach to determining rail-served properties would have on industrial recruitment in the state.

"We actually were looking at some rail properties here, and we asked CSX to send some representatives to Cullman to look at roughly a half dozen or so of our rail sites and make some recommendations," said Dale Greer, assistant director of the Cullman Economic and Community Development Agency. "After we found out there was a situation with rail service in general in Alabama we spoke with John Hansen, executive director of the Economic Development Association of Alabama, and recommended that he might want to have a state meeting here in Cullman while CSX representatives were here. Something like 50 people were invited and around 40 showed up for the meeting at City Hall."

Hansen said Tuesday he thought it was a very informative and beneficial meeting for everyone concerned.

"We've identified 70 sites along the CSX line in Alabama as being industrial sites. When we market these sites it's important for us to know what their status is in regard to access to rail service, to an interstate, utilities and so forth," Hansen said. "CSX has made a commitment to evaluate these sites and identify those areas they consider to be viable rail service sites under the new CSX master plan for railway development."

Increased fuel costs and other factors which are affecting the trucking industry nationwide are in turn boosting rail traffic which is becoming a more viable option, Hansen said.

"I don't think this change in approach by CSX is anything to become alarmed about, but we do want to be sure we stay on top of these situations, so we are able to give a clear and accurate picture of those properties to our clients," Hansen said.

Greer said discussions basically centered around two main issues regarding track capacity or the number of railroad cars a track can accommodate at any given time, and fluidity, or the time it takes for a train to move through an area.

"CSX officials told us they have experienced so much growth in recent years that they are really having to look at those industrial areas to make certain they weren't slowing traffic along the main line," Greer said. "They gave an example of an interstate highway. If you put an exit every mile it wouldn't be an interstate any more, and I think that's true of every rail line, not just CSX."

One possibility CSX representatives offered for addressing the situation is a re-evaluation of all potential rail sites in the state.

"I think they have to look at every rail site in Alabama, and I know we're going to ask them to come in here and look at ours," Greer said. "They're basically telling us that the days of a property being considered rail-served forever just because it is adjacent to a main rail line are over. Now, we have to determine, as best we can, which sites are viable for rail access and which aren't, so we can accurately market that piece of property."

Meg Scheu, a spokesperson for CSX Transportation, said her company is committed to working with economic development officials, not only in Cullman, but in the state as a whole, and part of that will be the re-examination of various industrial sites to determine the feasibility of rail service.

"Economic and industrial development is good for Cullman, the State of Alabama and CSX. We support economic growth, but growth in the right way so we can also meet our commitments," Scheu said.

Scheu explained that in Cullman, as in most communities in Alabama, CSX operates a main line that involves switching or the picking up and dropping off of train cars for a particular customer on a daily or routine basis.

"That operation takes place on our main line track and on that track we try to keep everything moving. Right now, in the rail industry, not just CSX, but across the country, rail service is facing unprecedented demand to move freight, to move goods for people who go shopping in their neighborhood stores to buy those goods," Scheu said. "There have also been some changes in the trucking industry. Truckers are now limited in the number of consecutive hours they can drive, and then, there is the issue of rising fuel costs. Those factors are placing even more demand on railroads to deliver and deliver as efficiently as possible."

Scheu said it is extremely important that main line operations stay on schedule and train traffic along those lines are affected as little as possible.

"To help ensure that, we will work with economic development officials to develop a plan to best serve the people interested in obtaining rail service while also reaching our operational goals, so we are able to give our customers the service we have promised them as well as the service they expect," Scheu said. "It will be our goal to make rail access available wherever possible and what is planned for a particular site is planned correctly, so it doesn't affect overall operations."

John Sanford, director of Industrial Development for CSX Alabama, said that while there are issues to be addressed, he has every confidence that those issues can and will be resolved.

"This was a very positive meeting. We discussed the positive relationship that exists between CSX and the various communities we serve in Alabama, and it has been a very good relationship," Sanford said. "We are aware of the positive impact rail service has on the economic growth of those communities and what needs to be done to make certain the local economy isn't adversely affected. There are some issues to be resolved, but we're addressing those issues and we will work to resolve them as best we can to everyone's satisfaction."

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