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NS gets a lift with port commerce

Rubber tire gantry crane at the South Carolina Inland Port lifting Maersk container
A rubber tire gantry crane at the South Carolina Inland Port lifts a Maersk container off a Norfolk Southern train as part of a test shipment of BMW auto parts imported from Europe.

New Inland Port offers good business opportunities

Nearly 185 years after Norfolk Southern’s first predecessor, the South Carolina Canal and Rail Road, began running trains between the Port of Charleston and the state’s interior, NS is carrying on the legacy with rail service at the new South Carolina Inland Port in Greer.

To punctuate the port’s significance, CEO Wick Moorman joined South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, and other political and business leaders on Jan. 24 to dedicate the facility. Opening for business in November, the approximately $50 million container facility connects the Charleston port, one of the Southeast’s busiest, to a burgeoning industrial base 212 miles inland in upstate South Carolina.

NS, the inland port’s exclusive rail provider, agreed to contribute up to $7.5 million for the project, including rail and track infrastructure upgrades and to assist the South Carolina Ports Authority with land acquisition and construction costs.

The inland facility, situated strategically along the Interstate 85 corridor, is within 500 miles of 100 million consumers in a region that is growing in population, distribution infrastructure, and manufacturing activity. BMW opened a manufacturing facility next to the site in 1994 and is continuing to expand operations, including a $900 million expansion announced in 2012. BMW now is using NS double-stack trains to transport about 70 percent of the 1,100 cars it makes daily at the Greer plant to the Charleston port. From there, the vehicles are shipped to 130 markets worldwide.

”The Southeast is the fastest growing region in the United States,” said Jim Newsome, president and CEO of the South Carolina Ports Authority, which owns the inland port. “The I-85 corridor is probably the fastest growing part of that.”

The inland port is a good place for NS to be, forming a reliable logistics link between the Greenville and Spartanburg regions and Charleston, said Jeff Heller, vice president intermodal and automotive marketing.

“This project represents a win-win-win situation for NS, the ports authority, and our mutual customers, including BMW,” Heller said. “Quick action by NS, the ports authority, and local officials and administrators ensured that we were able to achieve the speed to market necessary to take advantage of the BMW opportunity.”

The ports authority has owned the 100-acre port site off I-85 for more than 30 years, but it had remained vacant until NS stepped up with a business proposition. Sensing a unique opportunity, Mike McClellan, vice president industrial products and NS’ former vice president intermodal and automotive marketing, called Newsome in January 2012 to discuss the possibility of creating an inland port. NS had daily stack container service from Atlanta through Spartanburg moving to Charleston and was eager to tap into the growing industrial cargo market along I-85. McClellan thought an inland port would enhance the efficiency of freight movements while boosting economic investment.

“Mike had talked to BMW about getting its container traffic on Norfolk Southern stack trains and knew the ports authority owned land in Greer,” Newsome said. “We hadn’t done much with the property. Now we had a use for it.”

Other manufacturers have expressed interest in the inland port, Newsome said, opening additional business opportunities for NS. For example, Michelin opened an off-road tire plant near the Greer port facility last year. “Every container that gets on the train does not require a 200-mile truck haul between Charleston and Greer,” Newsome said. “That helps truckers leverage their capacity and saves fuel costs.”

NS Engineering Department employees in the track and signals departments helped install rail improvements at the inland port, including mainline switches, extensive signaling infrastructure, and about 2,500 feet of track, said Calvin Meeks, NS assistant division engineer. “Our line maintenance and production maintenance groups cooperated on the track work, and our construction and local maintenance employees cooperated on the signal side,” Meeks said. “They came in and finished what they needed to do very quickly, working efficiently and effectively to keep the project moving.”

Heller said that NS trains are projected to take 25,000 trucks off South Carolina highways during the inland port’s first year, saving fuel, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and alleviating congestion. Newsome added that port traffic volumes are expected to increase as more businesses throughout the region realize its benefits.

“This facility can handle 100,000 containers yearly, and it will be disappointing if we don’t achieve that,” Newsome said, adding that he is optimistic about the port’s future. “We’re exactly where we thought we’d be if not ahead of schedule. It’s been two years from when we first talked, and we’ve already built the facility. We just want to keep on the path we’re on.”