The long-unused Norfolk Southern rail line may finally be torn up and sold.
Norfolk Southern filed a notice with the federal Surface Transportation Board last week to abandon its 14.9-mile portion of rail line in Newton County, a long-talked-about step that sets the stage for the company to pull up and sell the steel rails and also sell the underlying land.
No trains have run on the portion of tracks in Newton County since at least 2010, but abandoning the line would ensure it’s never used as a rail line again, unless another railroad company were to step into the picture.
Norfolk Southern, and its subsidiary Great Walton Railroad, previously applied in 2010 to discontinue use on the line, a move that declared the line would not be used, but reserved the right for the company to restart rail service if warranted.
Because the line has been out of service for more than two years, the rail line will automatically be abandoned 50 days after the filing, which will be Aug. 20, according to Karl Morell, an attorney and railroad law expert with the Portland, Ore.-based Ball Janik law firm. Morell was brought to Newton County in 2009 by county attorney Tommy Craig’s office when the county was considering purchasing part or all of the rail line.
Morell said once Norfolk Southern officially "consummates" the abandonment, the rail line ceases to be an official corridor.
"It goes from a rail line to just property," Morell said.
Norfolk Southern has several options before or after abandonment, Norell said, most of which involve the sale of either part or all of the line to a variety of parties, including another railroad company, landowners adjacent to the rail line, or a government or nonprofit group.
A Norfolk Southern spokesperson could not be reached for comment this week.
The county Board of Commissioners and Covington City Council have voted not to pursue any purchase of the rail line and are not actively exploring the issue. The groups had access to around $1 million in federal earmarks for a purchase, but did not use the money. The purchase prices stated second hand by government officials varied, but the most recent price stated by the realty group marketing the land was nearly $4 million for the portion in Newton.
"The city of Covington is not pursuing the rail in any way, shape or form," Covington Mayor Ronnie Johnston said Wednesday.
Newton Trails interested
However, one group that’s expressed interest previously and remains interested is the nonprofit trail advocacy nonprofit Newton Trails.
Newton Trails Chairman Florian Pohl said the group is aware of the abandonment and is considering options with its attorney, including the federal process of railbanking.
Through railbanking, a group purchases a rail line and converts into a trail. There are two important factors with such a move, Morell said. The first is that the rail line can be reconverted into a railroad at any point; the second related point is that the land under the rail line remains intact.
When rail lines were created, some were built on land wholly-owned by a railroad company, while others used easements over property. If a rail line is abandoned, the land would eventually revert to the original landowner, Morell said.
Covington’s grant writer Randy Conner, studied the rail line for the city in-depth previously and said the rail line is completely owned by the railroad company. However, the land records in question are very old, and in its filing, Norfolk Southern said it "may not own all of the right-of-way underlying the line proposed for abandonment…" Morell said that could just be cautionary language, but he didn’t know.
If Newton Trails filed a request for railbanking, Pohl said the nonprofit would not be bound to purchase the corridor, but the request would open up negotiations with Norfolk Southern.
"(Railbanking requests are) quite commonly done because it at least gives us a chance to sit down with the railroad again," Pohl said. "Our hope is the abandonment filing can generate some energy again and make the public aware that things are going to change if the railroad goes through and abandons that corridor."
Pohl said a trail is just one use for the corridor, which has also been talked about extensively as a possible corridor to house water infrastructure, namely piping from the planned Bear Creek Reservoir in southeastern Newton County. The Newton County Water and Sewerage Authority previously expressed interest in the idea, but has never done a conclusive study to see if the route would be the most efficient.
The town of Newborn has also previously expressed interest in a purchase, as Mayor Roger Sheridan has said a trail that runs to or through Newborn would be great for the town. Sheridan could not be reached by phone Friday.
Newborn and Newton Trails have previously been trying to find money for a potential purchase.
According to Norfolk Southern’s filing with the Surface Transportation Board, "Following abandonment, the line’s rail and related track material will be salvaged…all salvaged steel components will either be reused or sold as scrap."
The scrap metal had an estimated of value of $600,000 to $900,000, said William Butler, with JWB Realty, the group marketing the rail line for sale, in a November 2012 interview.
The filing says the crossties would either be reused elsewhere or disposed of in accordance with state and federal law. The filing also says the railroad "expects to arrange for the removal of the bridges on the line." There are four bridges along the rail line that are older than 50 years, according to the filing; the bridges were built in 1916, 1921, 1922 and 1925.
The rail line and four bridges are potentially eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places, according to a letter from David Cross, division director of The Georgia Department of Natural Resources. The letter references finding ways to avoid, minimize or mitigate the historical impact. In its filing, Norfolk Southern said it believed the bridges did not merit historical consideration as there were no distinguishing characteristics from other bridges in the region or on the company’s rail system.
After the rails are removed, the roadbed would be smoothed.
The filing also includes a history of the line, which dates back to between 1890 and 1894, when the Middle Georgia and Atlantic Railway Company formed a 64-mile railroad link from Milledgeville to Covington.
The line between Eatonton and Machen was opened in 1891, and the line was extended north to Covington in 1893, according to the filing.
Norfolk Southern previously decided not to go through the abandonment process in 2010; a spokesperson said at the time future use of the tracks was a concern.
"(Norfolk Southern) may want to retain its operating rights into Newton County for future industrial development opportunities, and if NS were to abandon this line and remove the tracks, there can be no future rail-served industrial development opportunities," spokeswoman Susan Terpay said in an email at the time.
The company appears to no longer have such concerns.