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Ushering in a new era for freight rail

December 2017

On Dec. 11, 2017, Norfolk Southern 36T, a general merchandise train, became the first to cross the railroad’s new Portageville Bridge, constructed as part of a public-private partnership. The project demonstrates how the public and private sectors can work together on freight transportation projects that generate significant public benefits and are vital to U.S. commerce.

Meeting 21st-century needs of freight rail in New York 

New Portageville Bridge adds speed, capacity, and efficiency to NS’ Southern Tier Line

With trains now crossing the new Portageville Bridge, Norfolk Southern has carved out a faster, more efficient passage on its Southern Tier Line, while sustaining the scenic vistas found in New York’s Letchworth State Park.

The single-track steel arch bridge, which spans the Genesee River Gorge, opened to train traffic on the afternoon of Dec. 11, when rail operations were cut over from the Portageville Viaduct, a 142-year-old crossing no longer able to efficiently serve the needs of 21st-century freight rail transportation.

As a linchpin of the Southern Tier, the most direct rail route connecting Buffalo to Binghamton and on to New England, the new Portageville Bridge enables NS to expand freight capacity and enhance service for shippers across upstate New York. The bridge opens new business opportunities for shippers from New England to the Midwest, relieves pressure on NS’ main line through Pittsburgh and central Pennsylvania, and improves connections to the D&H South Line, which NS acquired from Canadian Pacific in 2015.

NS’ traffic across the Southern Tier has increased significantly in recent years and is projected to continue to grow along with the transportation needs of industries in the region. Projected long-term benefits of the new span include increased economic competitiveness and sustainability in the form of reduced fuel consumption and carbon emissions. The new span was NS’ largest infrastructure project of 2017.  

“We needed a modern rail crossing for NS to continue to provide safe, reliable, efficient rail operations on the Southern Tier,” said Philip Merilli, vice president engineering. “The old bridge was the weakest link on the line.”

The 963-foot-long bridge towers 235 feet above the gorge and is set against a backdrop of waterfalls, 600-foot high cliffs and lavish forests that make up the park, renowned as the “Grand Canyon of the East.” Built about 75 feet south of its predecessor, the bridge’s main span is a 483-foot-long steel arch with three 80-foot-long girder span approaches on each end. Approximately 1,200 feet of new track on both sides of the gorge were constructed to align existing tracks with the new bridge. The old bridge remained open during construction and will be dismantled early next year.

The 963-foot-long bridge spans the Genesee River Gorge, shown here while the bridge was under construction. The bridge was built about 75 feet south of the existing span.

To minimize the bridge’s environmental impacts and maximize its economic benefits for freight transport, the railroad has worked closely with the New York State Department of Transportation and the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. The $75-million crossing is NS’ largest public-private partnership for a single bridge project. NS financed nearly $60 million of the costs, with the NYSDOT and grants from the Finger Lakes Regional Economic Development Council and the Federal Highway Administration covering the balance.

Giving shippers more freight capacity

The need for a new bridge across the river gorge had become increasingly clear in recent years. Since 2009, the old 820-foot-long viaduct had been listed as one of New York’s 10 most significant rail bottlenecks. Its last extensive rehabilitation occurred in 1944, and ongoing deterioration combined with maintenance needs and associated costs underscored the need to replace it. Rail car weights were limited to 273,000 pounds, well below the industry standard of 286,000 pounds. Speeds were reduced to 10 mph, leading to congestion and increased fuel consumption and impeding the ability to efficiently serve customers along the Southern Tier.

“Customers would either have to put lighter loads into freight cars or use older rail cars that had a previous standard of 263,000 pounds, but those are becoming less and less common,” said Howard Swanson, assistant chief engineer bridges and structures. “With the new bridge, trains will be able to operate at 30 mph when traveling across it.”

Swanson was an NS junior engineer in 1999 when the railroad took ownership of the viaduct through its acquisition of a portion of Conrail. Since then, replacing the span has been on NS’ radar, he said.

NS inspects bridges annually to ensure safety standards are met and to determine when repairs are needed, but with the Portageville Bridge, structural engineers performed quarterly inspections. “We don’t cut corners,” Swanson said, “and we never let a bridge get to the point of being unsafe.”

The new bridge actually is the third rail crossing constructed over the Genesee River Gorge. Using 300 acres of wood, the Erie Railroad built the first bridge in 1852 at a cost of $175,000. Rising 234 feet above the Genesee River, the 800-foot-long structure was the world’s largest wooden bridge. After fire destroyed it in May 1875, the railroad quickly replaced it with an iron and steel crossing. The High Iron Bridge opened to traffic on July 31, 1875.

Construction of the newest Portageville crossing began in December 2015 following extensive engineering and environmental reviews. Safety was the top consideration in the design and construction process.

“It was built with safety in mind,” Swanson said. He noted that the bridge deck was designed to allow workers to safely replace ties and rail without having to use additional fall protection. The bridge has walkways for inspectors to safely evaluate the structure, and barriers were installed to deter trespassers. 

Howard Swanson, assistant chief engineer bridges and structures, led NS’ team on the bridge-building project

A working bridge with a breathtaking view

Developing a safe, economical, and aesthetically pleasing design that preserves the scenic beauty of the 14,427-acre Letchworth State Park fell to NS contractor Modjeski and Masters, one of the world’s leading bridge engineering firms.

“The location of the bridge is unusual in that it is in the middle of a state park,” Swanson said. “The first of three waterfalls in the park is right below the new bridge. It was determined that an arched structure would be the best physical choice for the location as well as the most aesthetically pleasing.”

Modjeski and Masters designed approximately 4,200 linear feet of track realignment to allow for a modest increase in operating speeds and steered NS through New York State’s stringent environmental quality review to ensure the bridge would have minimal impact on the park’s watershed and other natural resources. The park is home to two federally endangered species – the Northern long-eared bat and the timber rattlesnake – as well as federally protected bald eagles.

Because eagles were nesting during the construction, the use of explosives to excavate arch foundations had to be limited, and bridge foundation piles were drilled instead of pounded into the ground. “We had to monitor vibrations and noise because we couldn’t scare the eagles away from the area where they’ve nested for the last two years,” Swanson said. “Eaglets were born during construction, so we must not have affected them too badly.”

The American Bridge Company, NS’ main contractor, began steel construction on the bridge earlier this year, erecting the last steel beam during a “topping off” ceremony on July 31 – 142 years to the day that the old High Iron Bridge opened to rail traffic. A tradition in American commercial steel construction since the early 20th century, topping off ceremonies signify the safe completion of the framework on a structure.

Generating benefits that support business growth

NS’ completion of the new bridge ensures the long-term viability of a rail route that supports the economic competiveness of businesses from Buffalo to New York’s Capital Region. Among New York businesses to benefit are 10 short line railroads that service and connect local industries to Norfolk Southern’s network.

12115 Southern Tier Line with Portageville Map

Currently, NS runs about 10 trains daily over the Southern Tier Line between Buffalo and Binghamton. Freight transported over the route includes intermodal shipping containers, fracking sand used in drilling for natural gas, automotive, utility coal, and a range of general merchandise commodities.

Trainmaster Kelvin Lockhart, who manages train crews that operate over the line, said NS’ customers will benefit from the increased train speed and heavier rail car loads the new bridge permits.

“Picking up the train speed will help immensely, especially our intermodal traffic,” Lockhart said. “Our customers will get their freight a lot quicker and that’ll help them provide faster service for their customers.”

Chip Meador, director strategic planning, said adding freight capacity to the line is beneficial to NS, local businesses, and the regional economy.

“You’re loading cars more efficiently, which frees up cars for other uses, and shippers can move the same amount of tonnage using fewer cars than before, so everybody benefits,” Meador said. “That’s a big deal.”