WEST VIRGINIA SHIPPERS WIN ROUND 1 AS CSX LOSES BID TO ABANDON TRACK

WEST VIRGINIA SHIPPERS WIN ROUND 1 AS CSX LOSES BID TO ABANDON TRACK

A group of West Virginia shippers has saved its only rail link from abandonment by convincing the Interstate Commerce Commission that carloadings will increase.

CSX Transportation Inc., which plans to appeal the decision by July 31, had argued that traffic along 122.8 miles of its Cumberland Coal Line in central West Virginia was marginal and that the line's high maintenance and crew costs offered little potential for future profit.The trackage CSXT wanted to abandon is 28.4 miles between Tygart Junction and Elkins, W. Va., 93.3 miles between Elkins and Bergoo, W.Va., and 1.2 miles between Huttonsville Junction and Elkins.

In a 33-month period between January 1992 and September 1994, CSXT lost $845,000 on the line, said Kathy Burns, a CSXT spokeswoman. CSXT has just nine ''significant" shippers on the line.

Besides the low traffic, there's a 10 mph speed limit for track south of Elkins due to sharp curves and steep grades, and hours-of-service rules dictate that different crews are needed to serve the one shipper at the end of the line, she said.

Despite this, in a decision released last week, the ICC ruled that the line's traffic future is bright, thanks mostly to Frank E. Wilson Lumber Co. in Elkins, the only shipper with a rail siding.

Although Wilson Lumber, which dries and distributes lumber, rarely used rail in the past, it now allows other shippers to load railcars headed for the West Coast at its facility. For $300, shippers can use the siding, and Wilson provides a forklift and workers to help load, said Glenda House, Wilson's traffic manager.

"I'm glad the line is saved, but now it takes three weeks to get a car," said Jake Daft, plant manager for Mongold Lumber Enterprises Inc. in Elkins. Mongold is one of four shippers using Wilson's siding for West Coast business.

Another, Inter-State Hardwoods Co., will ship 27 carloads via Wilson this year.

A new Wilson subsidiary, Wilson Quality Millwork, started operations in June and will boost Wilson's carloadings to 89 this year, up 17 percent from 76 in 1994.

In addition, Bohica Inc., a Norton, W.Va., coal shipper, owns mineral rights to over 30 million tons of low-sulfur coal reserves on the Elkins segment. In 1995, Bohica plans to ship 560 carloads of this coal, which meets clean-air requirements. A second coal shipper, Kelly Management Co., is reopening its Elkhead 1 Mine on the line. That will mean additional carloadings for CSXT.

These traffic projections swayed the commission.

"The Elkins Shippers have demonstrated a 'credible' commitment to expanding their use of rail service," the ICC said. "Their traffic potential, when combined with the 560 carloads of coal projected to move from Norton by Bohica, adequately supports the conclusion that the abandonment of the Tygart Junction-Elkins segment is not at this time in the public interest."

This ICC decision is a pivotal one, said Thomas F. McFarland Jr., the Chicago attorney who represented the shippers.

"This illustrates the importance of keeping the public-convenience-and- necessity standard for rail abandonment cases," said Mr. McFarland, a partner in the Chicago law firm of Belnap, Spencer, McFarland & Herman.