Front Royal, Va., is one of those little towns along the Shenandoah River known for its Civil War history, gorgeous scenery at the northern end of the Skyline Drive and quaint traditions, such as an autumn leaves festival.
But aside from its history and small-town charms, Front Royal also has become a nexus of two modern trends in intermodal transportation.
It holds the Virginia Inland Port, which serves as an important mountain outpost for containerized import and export traffic connecting to seaside terminals at Hampton Roads, Va., 220 miles away.
Virginia Inland Port, a unit of the Virginia Port Authority that began operations in 1989, was a bold attempt to lock in distant loadings of a wide range of cargoes into marine containers and a specific East Coast port. If it stays on the course it began in the first months of this year, the Virginia Inland Port could set a record for container volume this year.
Meanwhile, Norfolk Southern Railway has planned for years to carve a gigantic new double-stack intermodal Crescent Corridor that will span about 2,000 miles. Its aim is largely to draw more domestic truck traffic onto trains between the U.S. Northeast and Mississippi Delta end points at New Orleans and Memphis, Tenn.
But while some facilities in that multiyear construction program are just getting started or have yet to begin, NS already has completed crucial work in the Front Royal-Manassas, Va., area to make the entire corridor work better.
That small piece of territory “was the most severe chokepoint of the Crescent Corridor,” NS spokesman Robin Chapman said,
The Virginia Inland Port, with its ocean shipments, and the far-ranging Crescent Corridor, designed to capture domestic traffic, are clearly distinct from each other. NS doesn’t consider the VIP one of its corridor facilities and doesn’t have its own intermodal facility at that site.
So they may not end up generating many loads for each other, but the geography still links them.
NS, aided by Virginia state funds, made significant improvements in and around Front Royal, Chapman said. In territory hemmed by jagged mountains and using routes mostly unchanged since warring troops fought around them, NS built long train sidings for passing lanes in some areas and double-tracked others so trains could keep moving at speed.
And right at the edge of Front Royal, NS re-engineered and rebuilt approaches to its bridge spanning the Shenandoah, to smooth out a sharp elbow in its track alignment that formerly brought trains to a near stop.
The work was done for the Crescent Corridor plan that will largely run north-south in that area and sometimes in parallel routes. Some of those same high-density lanes also handle VIP shipments heading eastward to coastal facilities around Norfolk.
The VIP sits on 160 acres about one mile from east-west Interstate 66, which leads to Washington, D.C., and five miles from north-south I-81, a major truck route inland from the Eastern Seaboard and an alternative to often congested I-95. It has more than three miles of track and connects to the NS mainline.
Joe Harris, a spokesman for the Virginia Port Authority, said the Front Royal site was built partly to draw hardwoods and related products from the forests in that region. It also handles outbound chemicals, poultry and military cargo.
Within an easy truck trip’s reach is northern West Virginia and central Pennsylvania as well as the farm belt in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. The concept was to capture loads to put aboard NS trains at Front Royal that might otherwise truck eastward to Baltimore or other seaports.
Inbound trains bring all sorts of imported consumer goods that move in intermodal containers, and over time Harris said that has helped generate significant amounts of commercial warehouse interest.
“In Warren County and surrounding areas,” he said, “the Virginia Inland Port has stimulated the development of some 24 warehousing and distribution centers, which are all port users.” They represent 7,000 jobs, he said, and more than $600 million in total private investment.
Some of the main VIP users in that area for import shipments, he said, are Home Depot, Family Dollar, Mercury Paper and Ozburne-Hessey Logistics.
The VIP terminal is also a transloading facility for logs, hauled in by truck and sometimes stacked high at one end of the terminal, waiting for loaders to put them into 20-foot containers for export.
Up to now, VIP’s highest volume years were 2005 when it handled 35,665 containers and 2007, with 35,366. Like all other ports — inland or coastal — it suffered with the 2009 financial crisis and plunging international trade; traffic fell to 24,458 units, the lowest in six years.
Yet the port authority kept up the train service each business day, because of the need to provide service reliability and because, Harris said, “the business was there. We were still moving enough containers to run the trains.”
Then it moved 30,000 boxes in 2010, and for the first four months of this year, volume rose 31 percent to 12,040. If it maintains anything close to that pace through the rest of this year, the VIP’s traffic will reach a new peak.
In years to come, what should be a growing north-south intermodal business on the Crescent Corridor will roll past the VIP, while the Front Royal cargoes mostly share that NS route before they slant toward the coast. Whether the two figure ways to link up, or simply continue to share a location, is uncertain. But if they keep on their planned paths, both will handle rising intermodal loads as they cross paths in the mountains.