Around Town

8 things you may not know about the freight trains chugging through Charlotte

tsumlin@charlotteobserver.com

I hear the hum of a freight train at least once a day from my humble abode in South End/Dilworth. Last Thursday, I heard a train over my coffee at 6:50 a.m., then again at 6:57 a.m. It was a really exciting morning.

I caught myself thinking — Where are the trains coming from? And that opened a whole can of worms. Well, a can of questions anyway. So I got some answers:

(1) Do all of the trains stop in Charlotte?

No. Hannah Davis, Multimodal Communications Officer for the North Carolina Department of Transportation, said, “Through freights that are not dropping off or picking up railcars in Charlotte simply pass through Charlotte.”

(2) When the trains do stop, where do they land?

“Freight trains that stop in Charlotte to drop off or pick up railcars generally do so in a railroad freight yard or at a customer’s siding,” Davis said. “Charlotte has several major freight yards located throughout the city that are active every day, year-round.”

For starters, there is the Hovis Road freight yard for CSX, a railroad company that has a network across 23 states, D.C. a and two Canadian provinces.

rail6
Photo: Google Earth

Then there is the Norfolk Southern intermodal facility at Charlotte Douglas International Airport off of West Boulevard. Norfolk Southern operates 20,000 route miles in 22 states and D.C.

Photograph of the Charlotte airport's intermodal yard taken in 2013Photograph of the Charlotte airport’s intermodal yard taken in 2013

(3) Why do some of the trains seem to move so, so slowly?

Based on my personal experience, trains passing through Plaza Midwood, near the intersection of Central Avenue and Lamar Avenue, and through the NoDa area, near the intersection of North Davidson Street and 13th Street, have this habit of dragging and backing up traffic (and my schedule). But it sounds like that’s just how it’s going to be sometimes.

Davis said, “Freight train speeds are established for certain sections of track depending on the physical characteristics of the railroad and the type of freight being hauled. Freight train speeds are also dependent on local conditions like train traffic and weather conditions.”

(4) Where are the trains coming from?

From all over the country. A glance at the Norfolk Southern schedule shows trains heading to Charlotte from Charleston, Chicago, Miami, New Orleans, Savannah and beyond. The schedule shows trains departing Charlotte for these destinations, too.

(5) Who is operating the trains?

“Most freight trains have an engineer and a conductor on board the train,” Davis said. “They ride together in the cab of the locomotive.”

(6) What are they carrying?

A Norfolk Southern representative told me: “Anything you see on a shelf.” Such as products from Walmart, Target and Home Depot.

(7) How many freight trains move through Charlotte on a given day?

Those details are private. The same Norfolk Southern representative told me the Department of Homeland Security wouldn’t want that type of information readily available.

I’ll chalk this up with CharlotteFive’s unsolved mysteries, alongside Corey’s quest for the tear in the space-time continuum uptown.

(8) Why do trains actually matter to Charlotte?

“The majority of the heavy tonnage materials that are used or produced by local industries are carried by rail,” Davis said. “A tremendous amount of consumer products arrive and depart Charlotte by rail. Freight rail can move large freight and consumer products more economically than most other means of transportation. Rail also offers an environmentally friendly means of transporting goods, removing hundreds of trucks from Charlotte roads on a daily basis.”

Plus, in 2014, a Norfolk Southern official told Charlotte business and civic leaders that the intermodal facility at the Charlotte airport, which is capable of 200,000 lifts annually, has put the Queen City “on the map” nationally as a transportation hub.

Keep chugging along, CLT.

Photos: Todd Sumlin/Charlotte Observer

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