Norfolk Southern executive: Growth next for rail yard at Charlotte Douglas

Now that trains are rolling to and from Charlotte Douglas International Airport’s new Norfolk Southern rail freight yard, executives with the railroad said Tuesday their next priority is growing the facility.

“We think it just represents all kinds of economic development and business opportunities,” Jeff Heller, president of Norfolk Southern’s intermodal operations, told the Rotary Club of Charlotte during a lunchtime meeting. “All we need to do now is grow it.”

The intermodal yard – so-called because it transfers freight between two modes of transportation, truck and rail – opened for business in December. The facility, nestled between two runways, cost $92 million, including $16 million worth of state and local grants.

The mix of air, truck and train transportation options at the site is critical for attracting new firms to the area, said Heller.

“You don’t swap freight between air and rail, but you do have companies that use both,” he said.

Charlotte city officials hope to attract new shipping, manufacturing and warehousing businesses to the undeveloped areas west and south of the intermodal yard. They hope that will form the nucleus of a new “ edge city,” the next major development boom.

The new rail yard replaces Charlotte’s former intermodal yard, which is just north of uptown. That facility is now closed. Charlotte has an option to buy the land, and Norfolk Southern officials say they expect the city to exercise it.

The rail yard at Charlotte Douglas has the capacity to handle about 200,000 lifts a year, up from 140,000 at the old location. Although the Panama Canal is being widened, which could send more big ships to East Coast ports served by Norfolk Southern, Heller said the company isn’t expecting a major boost from that in the coming years.

Heller also praised former Charlotte aviation director Jerry Orr, who worked to get the intermodal yard built. Orr lost his city job in July, in the midst of a dispute between state and city officials over who should run the airport.

Orr became head of a new, independent commission set up by state legislators to control Charlotte Douglas, but the commission was blocked by a judge and Orr retired in December.

But on Tuesday, Orr was front and center again.

“Even though Jerry Orr doesn’t remember me, I met him many years ago. He was truly one of the drivers and founding fathers” of the intermodal yard, said Heller.

Orr received a standing ovation and a long receiving line of supporters after the presentation. After the applause, Orr gave a typical, taciturn quip.

“Let’s go home,” said Orr.