The Future Of The Sunbury Line (2 of 7) Putting The Sunshine Back Into The Sunbury

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Assorted double-stack containers roll northbound on Canadian Pacific Train 259 on June 26, 2015.

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It’s not often that one gets to witness change on an entire railroad, but railfans in the Northeast have been both blessed and cursed to have had that unique priviledge more than once. The Norfolk Southern Sunbury Line is a 40 mph, 135 mile long single track mainline that runs between Conklin (East Binghamton), NY and CP Kase (Sunbury, PA). The line has several grades and signaled sidings and there are online industries (particularly in the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton area) served by local Train K81.

Trains include just about every commodity from grain, general freight, coal and intermodal and with so much potential for future growth and development, the Sunbury Line has finally taken its place as a vital link in and to the entire U.S. rail network.

When NS bought the line last year several things took place simultaneously. On the grand scale, which is the North American rail network, it was simply a case of bringing ownership of a long-suffering rail line under the aegis of the railroad that was its majority user. But in another light, it was a deal that paved the way for the potential of bringing “true” rail freight competition to the Northeastern and New England freight markets for the first time since before Conrail and the unraveling of the Northeastern rail network.

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I’ve titled this series “The Future of the Sunbury Line,” and in order to understand my vision of the future you have to know a little bit about the Sunbury’s past….

The Delaware & Hudson in the post WWII era was a railroad that had been owned and/or controlled by Norfolk Southern’s predecessor, the Norfolk & Western (through Dereco), Guilford Industries (known as Pan Am Railways today), the New York, Susquehanna, and Western, and the Canadian Pacific since 1991.

In the 20th century railroads, for the most part, moved products and goods out of New England but now (especially considering that Boston‘s port is not fit for big (post-Panamax) container ships) they’re looking for the freight moving into New England as well. And in the past there have been 3 main rail routes into New England. The New Haven Maybrook Line, The New York Central Boston & Albany and the Boston & Maine Hoosac Tunnel route. In 1974, a “mysterious” fire that has never been explained, destroyed the Poughkeepsie River Bridge permanently severing the Maybrook Line.

This left the B&A and the B&M; both of which had advantages and disadvantages…. The Boston & Maine was cursed with tight curves and single track (but less severe grades). And unlike the Boston & Albany, the Hoosac route had radically different line connections to the west and because it ultimately fell under the ownership and control of a weak regional line like Guilford/Pan Am, it’s always stood at a disadvantage to the B&A which was controlled by the dominant railroads of the region. Specifically, the NYC, the Penn Central, Conrail and CSX today.

That changed in 2009 when Norfolk Southern came a calling. Looking to break into the lucrative New England market which CSX held a virtual monopoly over, NS bought into 50% of the Hoosac Line from the connection with the D&H at Mechanicville, NY to the intermodal terminal at Ayer, MA in a joint venture known today as the Pan Am Southern. For NS, the D&H lines neatly and seamlessly connected its Pan Am Southern to its Southern Tier and Buffalo Line leading directly to its Harrisburg hub center.

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A long block of international containers await their next move at Norfolk Southern’s Harrisburg Yard on January 16, 2016.

In Part 1 of this series I gave you an email that I received that gave an insider’s look at what the future of the Sunbury Line could be. Back on March 10 I posted another article about a phone call that was said to be made from Atlanta to Binghamton asking if they (Bingo-Town) could handle more traffic. Here’s the article in case you missed it.

On Monday, April 4, NS started moving Trains 10A & 11A from a Northumberland to Enola routing to a Northumberland to Binghamton routing (over the Sunbury Line). In addition to that, NS now has all interchange traffic for the North Shore Railroad Group coming from Moorman Yard in Bellevue, Ohio on Train 310 which used to terminate at Elmira, NY but now terminates at Binghamton. Train 309 now operates from Binghamton to Bellevue, Ohio and carries the traffic from Train 11A.

Originally, Trains 10A & 11A were Conway Yard to Northumberland (Norry) Yard via Altoona and Tyrone over to the Nittany & Bald Eagle (NBER) and to Lock Haven. In September 2015 when the NBER had its track out of service for 2 weeks in Tyrone for bridge construction, NS moved the trains to the Pittsburgh Line via the Rockville Bridge and north on the Buffalo Line to Norry.

For 3 months, 10A & 11A operated between Northumberland and Enola 3 days a week but since running over the Sunbury are daily trains again. So in short, Binghamton picked up 4 more trains daily while the Sunbury picked up more traffic as well.

On April 29, loaded coal Train 532 came up to the Sunbury Line with 89 cars and 4 big six axle diesels. Although a new treat for newcomers to the line, old-schoolers remember when NS coal trains were a common sight coming through the region. Back then, trains ran with 3 six-axles up front and 2 CP SD40-2s pushing on the rear. In later days CP began using AC powered GEVOs to replace the aging SDs.

Coal trains stopped somewhere around 2012 (ironically when one E. Hunter Harrison took control) and have been routed over the Southern Tier ever since.

The following is a list of trains that are currently running up and down the Sunbury Line and the purpose that each train serves….

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Loaded coal Train 532, the first of such trains to roll across the Sunbury in at least 4 years pounds northbound past M.P. 671 (yesterday) on April 29, 2016. These trains are being taken off of their Southern Tier routing and placed back on the Sunbury Line from Enola.

Train K21 &
Train K22: Trains K21/K22 are local turns that work the southern end of the Sunbury Line from Sunbury to about M.P. 739. While they can run on any day they mostly run on Sundays.

Train K81 is a local job out of Taylor Yard that services the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre metropolitan area as far south as Hanover, Pa.. K81 is a daylight runner between approximately 07:00 a.m. and 7:00 p.m. with quit times for the crew usually before 6 p.m..

Train K82 is a Taylor, Pa. to Binghamton, NY nocturnal Turn running from 9:00 p.m. to 9:00 a.m.. It brings intermodal and loaded cars such as grain, lumber and plastics for the Delaware-Lackawanna, Liquid Petroleum Gas for Avoca and assorted boxcars for the Reading & Northern.

(Also worthy of note) Rumor has it that the NS interchange with the R&N on Penobscot is being moved to Taylor which probably means long blocks of western boxcars (UP, BNSF and their predecessor roads respectively) coming north on Train 37T or maybe even Train 14R then back down on K82.

K82 also returns the empty cars from Taylor back to Binghamton 5 nights a week and occasionally on weekends with Train K8N (A K82 Extra).

Train 10A &
Train 11A: These trains formerly ran between Northumberland and Conway Yard west of Pittsburgh but now run the Sunbury north and south between Norry and Binghamton. At Binghamton they become part of Trains 309/310 to and from Moorman Yard in Bellevue, Ohio.

Train 11R is an East Deerfield, Ma. (Pan Am Southern) to Enola, Pa. manifest which formerly ran as Canadian Pacific Train 458.

Train 14R is a Harrisburg (Enola), Pa. to East Deerfield, Ma. (Pan Am Southern) manifest which formerly ran as Canadian Pacific Train 459.

37T is an Allentown, Pa. to Buffalo, NY manifest which formerly ran as Canadian Pacific Train 932. When CP left the region its Train 259 duties were picked up by the 37T including the intermodal to Buffalo and Toronto, Canada.

36T is a Buffalo, NY to Allentown, Pa. manifest which formerly ran as Canadian Pacific Train 933. When CP left the region its Train 258 duties were picked up by the 36T including the intermodal from Buffalo and Toronto, Canada.

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The following is a list of trains that I feel should be running over the Sunbury Line based on my experience in the transportation business. This is NOT a blind fan boy wish list based on personal whims and desires.

Atlanta – Ayer, Ma. (intermodal)
Ayer, Ma. – Atlanta (intermodal)

Apparently this already in the making. Besides providing second rail competition to CSX for north/south moving freight to and from New England to and from the Southeast, a pair of trains running almost the length of the entire eastern seaboard would give NS a long haul of over 1,000 miles…. Probably the longest haul on their system. And with the Panama Canal widening now complete, this gives NS (and CSX) the ability to solicit container traffic from ports in Houston, Tx., New Orleans, Miami and Savannah, Ga. to be made into unit trains in Atlanta giving them a long haul of close to 1,500 miles.

Memphis – Ayer, Ma. (intermodal)
Ayer, Ma. – Memphis (intermodal)

These are not likely trains to materialize because it would require both Union Pacific and BNSF to shorten their own, more than 2,000 mile long hauls to Chicago to utilize one of the shorter mileage interchange points of Kansas City and/or St. Louis. In theory, however, these (imaginary) trains would give NS the same benefits of the long haul from Atlanta.

NYC/North Jersey – Buffalo (intermodal)
Buffalo – NYC/North Jersey (intermodal)

Another train that may already be in the making…. I feel a unit intermodal train is necessary from the port of North Jersey/NYC to compete for the intermodal traffic of the inland ports of Buffalo and into Canada from trucks AND CSX. My guess is CSX is already running such trains up the Hudson River through Selkirk and west across the Water Level Route. This has started on NS with the light container traffic seen on Trains 36T and 37T.

NYC/North Jersey – Taylor Hot Shot (intermodal)
Taylor – NYC/North Jersey Hot Shot (intermodal)

Harrisburg – Taylor Hot Shot (intermodal)
Taylor – Harrisburg Hot Shot (intermodal)

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I’ll talk more about the last 4 hotshot intermodals in Part 3…. For now, it should be known that Northeast Pa. is currently a large user of intermodal. Places like Tunkhannock, Carbondale, Pittston, Hazleton and Tannersville all use intermodal and are currently served by CSX via a 200+ mile dray from the Kearny/Bergens area of North Jersey.

NS serves NEPA too with its Taylor facility, but rumor has it that NS wrestled a big international container deal (from the hands of CSX) which may be a contributor to the possible Ayer/Atlanta long haul. Whether true or not, Taylor is a part of a bigger plan to service the region. And with its close proximity to New England, New York, New Jersey, Philly and the Mid-Atlantic states, NEPA is home to many big-box regional distribution centers and a prime location for intermodal growth.

We’ll talk about how in Part 3….

The Future Of The Sunbury Line (2 of 7) Putting The Sunshine Back Into The Sunbury

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Author:Railfan AC

AC is a U.S. Air Force Veteran, a long haul trucker, a transportation enthusiast and a lifelong lover of trains. AC's mission is to travel America documenting American railroading in the 21st century while educating those who want to know about the importance the railroads play in our daily lives including, but not limited to, the movement of goods, services and more.

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