Georgia ports seek to expand rail service as cargo traffic keeps rising

By David Pendered

Most days at the port of Savannah, about 20 trains arrive to drop a load of goods for export, reload with imports, and depart a few hours later. The state plans to grow this business with a network of transport hubs in five surrounding states.

The Chatham Intermodal Transfer Facility, at the Savannah port, has 15,000 feet of working tracks and 7,500 feet of storage tracks in a facility that covers 160 acres. Credit: GPA/Stephen B. Morton

The Chatham Intermodal Transfer Facility, at the Savannah port, has 15,000 feet of working train tracks and 7,500 feet of storage tracks in a facility that covers 160 acres. Credit: GPA/Stephen B. Morton

“The concept we’ll develop over the next couple of years will build on what I consider to be the largest inland intermodal complex in the entire eastern third of the United States, and that’s Atlanta, Ga.,” said Curtis Foltz, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority.

The port’s existing rail network is a substantial platform on which to start the expansion.

Atlanta and Savannah are linked by three trains that make a round trip seven days a week. CSX operates two trains, one based at Hulsey Yard, near Inman Park, and one at Fairburn; Norfolk Southern operates one train, from a yard in Austell, according to GPA’s marketing materials.

In addition, Savannah is linked by rail service to 10 cities that make round trips most days of the week. The cities, listed in alphabetical order, and the railroads that service them are:

  • Birmingham – CSX and Norfolk Southern;
  • Charlotte – CSX and Norfolk Southern;

    Network Georgia

    Network Georgia, the business development plan for Georgia’s ports, is an ambitious outreach to manufacturers and shippers in Georgia and five neighboring states. File/Credit: GPA

  • Chicago – CSX and Norfolk Southern;
  • Cincinnati – CSX and Norfolk Southern;
  • Dallas – Norfolk Southern;
  • Jacksonville – CSX;
  • Louisville – CSX and Norfolk Southern;
  • Memphis – CSX and Norfolk Southern;
  • Nashville – CSX;
  • Winter Haven (Tampa/Orlando) – CSX.

GPA intends to scale this system in Georgia as well as five states surrounding Georgia. The expansion plan is named Network Georgia.

The first of these inland ports is being established in Crisp County, on a 40-acre site with an option to expand on 1,200 adjacent acres in the Crisp County Industrial Park. The idea is for trucks to haul goods to the inland port. From there, goods will be loaded on a train and transported the remaining 200 miles to a state port in Brunswick or Savannah. Agriculture products are expected to make up most of the materials – wood products, cotton, and peanuts.

Cranes lift containers off ships and set them on trailers which will take them to a holding area. File/Credit: GPA

Cranes lift containers off ships and set them on trailers which will take them to a holding area. File/Credit: GPA

“Our vision, flash forward a decade, is to have Savannah served by I-16 and I-95, and have mainline railroad hubbing, with focus in Atlanta,” Foltz said. “You would have more, and better, access to a rail solution to improve the economy of doing business in those regions, and lowering pressure on our roadways.”

Truck traffic related to the Savannah port has become such an issue that Gov. Nathan Deal has announced plans to beef up safety enforcement patrols on I-16 and in metro Atlanta. The state has created 60 new positions in commercial vehicle enforcement, and they will join an agency that now has 234 officers. Additional officers also will be stationed along I-85, in Troop County.

The $10 million cost of increased enforcement will be shared equally by GPA and the state Department of Public Safety.

Georgia’s ports are experiencing record growth.

The increase initially was chalked up to the closure of California ports over the past winter, prompting shippers to reroute freight to the east coast. However, the growth has persisted.

Every month this year, the Savannah port has set new records for the amount of cargo handled. The state port in Brunswick also is notching increases.

At the June 22 meeting of the board that oversees the Georgia Ports Authority, Foltz reported the state’s ports recorded increases of 16.4 percent in 20-foot equivalent containers, and 9.6 percent in freight. The rates compare May 2015 with May 2014.

At the port of Brunswick, the East River Terminal recorded a 44.2 percent increase in commodities, also for the May comparison. The nearby Colonel’s Island Terminal recorded a 40.2 percent increase, largely due to growth in soybean meal.

“Superior service and unmatched connectivity to inland markets are driving growth at Georgia’s deepwater ports,” GPA Chairman James Walters said in a statement. “Our ability to handle expanding cargo volumes – without congestion delays – has set GPA apart in support of farming, retail and manufacturing customers.”

 

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.

5 replies
  1. writes_of_weigh says:

    Mr. Foltz and the Georgia Ports Authority have very limited expansion options given the limits of what we, the taxed enough already, own. That would be the few hundreds of acres which comprise the land on which Georgia’s ports are situated, and the additional few thousands of narrow acres which comprise the rail rights-of-way the state owns(i.e. Atlanta-Chattanooga(Western & Atlantic(under lease to CSX) and Vidalia-Omaha(GA)(ex CSX)(under lease to Heart of Georgia Ry) and other minor additional R’s-O-W(some operational and leased, others not)). The State of Georgia pols argue they have no money to invest in transportation(Highway?) upgrades/maintenance, yet claim to want to “scale(?)” the existing major eastern rail networks? I detect anomalous duplicity in the statements of those quoted for this article in particular, and this blog, in general. There either IS money to invest in transportation “scaling(whatever THAT means?)” , or THERE ISN’T. Please clarify.Report

    Reply
  2. dwpendered says:

    writes_of_weigh My understanding is the expansion would be conducted with the participation of the private sector. For example, the Cordele hub is served by CSX, Norfolk Southern, and the state-owned HOG line, Heart of Georgia. 
    HOG operates the line between Cordele and Vidalia, and Georgia Central Railroad operates the line between Vidalia and Savannah. Georgia has 4,966 miles of track, and 71 percent is owned by the two major railroads, according to Georgia Department of Transportation. 
    GDOT’s website for rail information is http://www.dot.ga.gov/IS/Rail. 
    Best regards,
    DavidReport

    Reply
  3. Lunaville says:

    Hmm … this may be an opportune time to levy a very modest tax on the port related industries, the incoming ships, the cargo rail, and cargo trucks to fund a Statewide passenger rail system. Mind you I don’t mean a cutesy, fake retro pleasure train for old people. I mean a whip-fast train … A train so fast it would be reckless and dangerous to not have underpasses and overpasses for animals, pedestrians, and cars … A train that unites all the largest towns, the port, the largest Universities, and the largest military bases … A train served by train stations surrounded by retail, offices, medical and dental services, and topped with apartments … A train that would be absolutely useful and would promote business as well as provide people another way to get where they need to go.Report

    Reply
  4. writes_of_weigh says:

    dwpendered writes_of_weigh My understanding is that investments made via the private sector……usually occur via stock and bond purchases. Assuming that the State of Georgia wishes to”invest” in “scaling” the varied terminals the major class one rail carriers own in surrounding states, as well as those major terminals located instate, I am certain they would “appreciate” such investments, at Georgia taxpayor expense. You have misunderstood the explanations you received in the phone call regarding the relationship between the State of Georgia and the Heart of Georgia Railroad, I’m certain that the Federal Surface Transportation Board would find the explanation of the leases, you stated in response to my initial post, regarding the H.O.G. Railway, elucidating, if not criminal, based on requisite filings located in Washington, D.C.. The Heart of Georgia leases from the state, certain properties you mentioned, as well as others, but rest assured they do not in turn, sub-lease 90 percent of their 540 miles of track, as THEY are a short-line carrier. Additionally, currently, neither CSX nor Norfolk Southern connects directly to the Inland Port at Cordele. CSX could easily, but decades ago ceased its “ramp” service at Cordele.
    Norfolk Southern tracks run on the opposite side of Cordele and if they chose to serve the Cordele Inland Port with a direct mainline connection, a new connection either over or under I-75 would have to be built. THIS WILL NOT HAPPEN, in either of our life times, as Norfolk Southern, like CSX no longer provides “ramp’ service to such small facilities.Report

    Reply
  5. writes_of_weigh says:

    Additionally,  IMHO….Not only might the referenced(Murray County expansion) site be poorly chosen, but from a rail modal operations standpoint, and Atlanta region air quality perspective,  the notion that even one set of trains linking (the port in)Savannah to this proposed Murray county facility via the clusterfeck(and rail equivalent of spaghetti jct.) known as Howell (Jct.)interlocking, where some freight trains have been known to be delayed for their “turn to cross” transecting rail lines, hours on end, and through which said trains will have to weave their way to and fro, will be a more compelling reason to stop construction of said “inland port”, and consider locating such a facility near, say….Cedartown/Rockmart. THAT might involve re-railing part of the Silver Comet trail, but that was always an eventuality, given CSX/Seabord System’s poor decision process to abandon their shortest/straightest/lowest gradient mainline linking Atlanta and Birmingham, a few decades ago. As the failure of the State’s elected officials to effectively and openly negotiate with CSX regarding their lease of the valuable, Georgia owned, Western and Atlantic r-o-w linking Atlanta to downtown Chattanooga, and extract passenger/commuter operating rights on other CSX routes in Georgia(i.e. Atlanta-Augusta, Atlanta-Athens, Atlanta-Manchester) I can only concur that it’s another cronified(?) sweetheart DEAL. The trouble in all of this is compounded by a potential new “wave” of rail mergers, wherein, it might shortly occur that Norfolk Southern and it’s dwindling Atlanta area workforce(and marginalized political influence) may be further decimated by a potential proxy battle between Canadians attempting to wrest U.S. control and ceed it to a few office suites in CP Rwy. headquartered Calgary. Failure of the “surf board” to protect U.S. controlled transportation assets in such an eventuality, could lead to Georgia rail-centric congestion/pollution decisions/fates being decided further away, potentially, in places like Omaha, Fort Worth, or Kansas City.Report

    Reply

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