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On the move in Roanoke

Double-stack intermodal trains never stopped moving through downtown Roanoke as NS track crews made improvements at Randolph Street. The project has enhanced the movement of trains through a juncture where four main lines converge, including the only rail segment on the network where the Crescent and Heartland corridors intersect. The photos here were taken during construction in April.

Track improvements double train speed at key crossroads

When a concerned citizen called to report that a Norfolk Southern train was speeding in downtown Roanoke, Va., Josh Zimmerman had to smile. No speeding had occurred: What the person had witnessed on that day in early May was a train moving through newly improved Randolph Street tracks.

During three weeks in April, NS Engineering Department employees modernized and streamlined the matrix of track, switches, and signals at Randolph Street, enabling trains to double their pass-through speed to 30 mph from 15 mph.

“The project has dramatically increased our capacity in downtown Roanoke,” said Zimmerman, assistant superintendent dispatch, who moved from Roanoke to the Alabama Division in September. “Before, the tracks looked like spaghetti, and trains pretty much crawled through downtown. Now, the tracks are straight as an arrow. It’s amazing.”

In terms of magnitude, the nearly $17.2 million project is the single largest track and signal infrastructure project to date on the Crescent Corridor, said Michael Breen, manager construction in engineering’s design and construction group.

“We’ve put in a modern system that is very reliable, that is compatible with positive train control, and that has enhanced safety,” Breen said.

A mixing bowl

Five decades ago, Randolph Street served as a nexus for rail routes operated by NS predecessor Norfolk & Western, which was headquartered in Roanoke. These days, as many as 50 to 60 NS trains pass through daily on four main lines that converge there, including a line segment between Roanoke and Walton, Va., that is the only place on NS’ system where the Crescent and Heartland corridors intersect.

Trains on the east-west Heartland Corridor haul mainly double-stack containers carrying import and export goods for NS’ international business between Virginia ports and Midwest markets. Trains on the north-south Crescent Corridor haul mostly domestic containerized freight, linking U.S. consumer markets from New Orleans and Memphis to northern New Jersey.

Added to the mix on the two other lines are coal, merchandise, and local freight trains, including trains that set off and pick up goods at Roanoke Terminal for local customers. 

“In the big scheme of things, it’s absolutely improved the fluidity and smoothness of train traffic in Roanoke,” said Rick Loope, Virginia Division assistant superintendent. “That helps us improve on schedules and overall transit times, which is a huge deal for our customers.”

Along with corridor improvements to add siding and track and straighten curves, the project reflects NS’ strategy to increase network capacity, efficiencies, and productivity. The goal: to lower costs, improve customer service, and grow business volumes.

Good planning makes for successful project

A good vantage point for watching trains move through Randolph Street is the pedestrian overpass bridge linking Hotel Roanoke to downtown.

A critical part of construction there included streamlining a mile-long section of tracks where trains once had to maneuver through five control points. A control point serves the same purpose as a traffic light for highway motorists, with dispatchers controlling signals for train movements.

“To have five control points in a mile is the equivalent of having five traffic lights in a city block,” Breen said. Train and engine crews, he said, referred to the area as the “Bermuda Triangle” because of its array of signals and track crossovers that connect adjacent lines.

NS crews realigned track to eliminate curves, installed about 30 new switches, and ripped out and replaced an approximately half-century old communications and signals system.

 One big achievement: All that work occurred without delaying trains.

“The key was planning and coordination,” said Ron Patton, division engineer on the Virginia Division. “It was well planned out, we went according to plan, and there was excellent coordination between transportation and engineering, which included design and construction, maintenance-of-way and structures, and communications and signals.”

In particular, Patton credited the efforts of Breen, David Taylor, assistant division engineer track, Tony Grim, chief engineer C&S, and Randy Cravens, superintendent construction C&S.

Engineering’s innovative approach to minimize train delays involved splitting the work into 12 separate phases. In each phase, closures affected small sections of track, allowing traffic to keep flowing on adjacent tracks.

“That probably was the biggest achievement of this project,” Breen said.

C&S forces did much of their work in advance, including installing signal cables underground. “When engineering went in and located new turnouts, it was basically plug and play,” Patton said. “We had very few issues, and that was huge.”

Burying the signal cables, where they are better protected, was a major accomplishment, Grim said.

“There was every kind of waterline, old culverts, concrete, and all kinds of stuff in the ground,” he said.

Brian Putman, principal design engineer and lead designer on the Randolph Street project, said part of the project involved documenting things found buried, including old pipes and pumps that once supplied steam heat to former N&W offices and an underground stairwell and tunnel that served a former downtown passenger rail station. “We were part historian and part engineer,” Putman said.

“We started this project with probably a century-old track alignment, and what we’ve done likely will remain for the next 100 years,” he added. “With the Heartland and Crescent corridors coming together there, we wanted to make sure we got it right.”

Public benefits

In a plus, Virginia partnered with NS on the project, covering about 60 percent of the improvement costs with money from the state’s Rail Enhancement Fund. The fund, overseen by the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, has helped NS finance projects on the Heartland and Crescent corridors as part of Virginia’s efforts to increase the efficiency and capacity of passenger and freight rail.

The public-private partnership has been a win-win since the enhancement fund’s creation in 2005, said Marc Hoecker, director strategic planning.

“It has allowed us to accelerate improvements on railroad projects that benefit our network while at the same time generating public benefits for Virginia,” Hoecker said.

 Public benefits include economic development, job creation, and reducing highway congestion caused by long-haul trucks.

NS designed the Randolph Street project to accommodate Virginia’s interest in returning Amtrak passenger rail service to downtown Roanoke. In January, NS and Virginia announced a separate agreement on a rail infrastructure improvement project between Roanoke and Lynchburg, Va., to do just that.

The Randolph Street project can serve as a model for future rail construction projects across NS’ system, said Breen. 

“The Randolph Street project,” he said, “was a shining example of what we can accomplish if we all share a common goal and work with each other to accomplish it.”