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Posted: October 4, 2009 12:01 a.m.

Norfolk Southern preparing to abandon rail line

No new negotiations between railroad, county

 Norfolk Southern Corp. is in the process of abandoning most of its railroad from Covington to Newborn because the line will no longer be used. The decision to abandon comes after Norfolk Southern chose to not renew its lease with the Great Walton Railroad Company as of Sept. 30.

 Norfolk Southern Spokeswoman Susan Terpay said the lease was not renewed because the company wanted to pursue other opportunities. She confirmed that Norfolk Southern is still negotiating a possible sale of the railroad to Newton County, but said she couldn’t give out any more details. A three-year lease was signed 20 years ago, and when that initial lease
expired, it was continued on a month-by-month basis. Great Walton could not be reached for comment.

 If this latest abandonment is completed then the approximately 12 miles of Norfolk Southern railroad from Porterdale, through Covington, to Newborn will be abandoned. The Porterdale to Covington portion was abandoned around 20 years ago, Terpay said.

 Chairman Kathy Morgan said negotiations have not advanced from where they were earlier this year.

 "The Board of Commissioners has only authorized me to get the facts. We currently have someone looking up the ROW/easements in the county records but have made no further negotiations with Norfolk Southern," she said.

 The entire length of Norfolk Southern railroad is 27 miles and runs from Covington, through Newborn, down to Machen, a small city next to Shady Dale. While the portion from Covington to Newborn will be vacant, Squaw Creek Southern Railway will take over the rest of the line — the 12.5 miles from Newborn to Machen — in order to serve the line’s only customer, Rose Acre Feed Mill, an egg farm in Newborn.

 Squaw Creek Employee Jerry Strange said his company also leases a Machen to Madison line from Norfolk Southern. Squaw Creek Trainmaster Todd Phelps said Rose Acres’ products will be transported along that line, and Rose Acres will then have the opportunity to interchange with either NS or CSX Railroad. Rose Acres could not be reached for comment.

 Railroad companies abandon lines when they are no longer active, as will be the case with the Covington to Newborn section. Abandonment is a complicated process with several options or outcomes and must be approved by the federal Surface Transportation Board. Parties can challenge the abandonment, but they must prove some public need, which usually necessitates that the line be active.

 During the abandonment, Norfolk Southern would be allowed to sell the railroad to another railroad company, other non-railroad groups or a government entity, but all of these generally have to be approved by the STB.

 If a railroad is abandoned, the ties can sometimes be taken up and the railroad easements can be returned to their previous property owners, but this is not always the case. Anyone one interested in learning more about abandonments can explore the STB’s Web site at stb.dot.gov.

 Covington has previously expressed interest in buying the railroad within its limits and converting it to trails, which is allowed by the STB. The county has explored buying the railroad to preserve it for future commercial rail use or public transportation. Porterdale Mayor Bobby Hamby has also expressed some interest in creating a trolley connecting Porterdale and Covington. One of the nationwide concerns of railroad abandonments is that they can eliminate the possibility future industries dependent on rail access from locating in the area.

 However, while many people support exploring the railroad purchase, many others oppose a possible purchase, because of the county’s financial woes. The cost of acquisition could be mostly covered by more than $1 million in grants related to purchasing the railroad, but liability concerns and future costs could be issues.

 Neither the BOC nor any city councils have authorized the purchase of any railroad sections, and no timetable has been given for abandonment or negotiations.

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