Morris Sees a Future in Freight

Study looks at viability of local rail service.

Morris County's working on the railroad. And it's betting that by doing so, it can encourage a diverse economy and redevelop abandoned industrial sites.

The county, which owns three short lines, conducted a study over the past year to examine the many variables that could affect the continued viability of local rail service for freight, and the possibility that underused land near roads or rail road tracks could be turned into freight rail hubs.

The constraints on the future of freight rail service on the county are the weight limits placed on freight cars, the overhead wires on parts of the rail system operated by NJ Transit, and clearances of a couple of bridges, both of which limit the height of railcars allowed to operate in Morris County.

Then there's the suburban nature of the development on much of the county, which has increased the potential for conflicts between existing neighbors and the redevelopment of old industrial sites.

Impact on Business

Steve Friedland, general manger of the Morristown-based Morristown & Erie Railway, which operates on the county owned lines, said his company’s business is up about 2 percent.

The Morristown & Erie benefited from a $5.8 million repair project of the Chester Branch in Roxbury that was completed early this year.

The 4-mile repair replaced track leading to Holland Manufacturing, a company that had threatened to pull out of New Jersey if the rail line could not be repaired.

Friedland joked the run to Holland now “takes 15 minutes, instead of 15 days.” In reality he said, what was a four- to six-hour run can now be done in two.

The trains were forced to travel at very slow speeds along the Chester Branch because of the poor condition of the track, and were often derailed.

The repair of the Chester Branch has also made it possible for Kuiken Brothers Lumber, which took over a vacant lumber yard along Route 10 in Roxbury, to receive and unload a train car filled with lumber in one day.

“That never happened before,” Friedland said.

The Morristown & Erie serves 10 manufacturing customers on the three county-owned rail lines—The Chester Branch, the High Bridge Branch, and the Dover & Rockaway Railroad—and on its own Whippany Line.

The Dover and Rockaway line has been under study for more than a decade as the parties try to come to a solution to shift the freight trains from a route through the center of Dover, with 12 grade crossings, to the NJ Transit line and potentially a redeveloped spur along the Rockaway-Denville border that leads to the rail customers on Green Pond Road.

Morris County senior planner Erik DeLinn said that this plan was part of the Route 46 reconstruction project, but was dropped. Plans for the eastern realignment are under consideration, he said.

The county’s freight study estimates that five additional customers are available for service and possibly 12 others could become rail freight customers if certain improvements are made in the future.

The Morristown & Erie customers along county-owned lines are:

  • Holland Manufacturing Company: 79 employees, $40 million in sales;
  • Blue Ridge Lumber: eight employees; $2.8 million in sales;
  • 84 Lumber: eight employees, $2.8 million in sales;
  • Endot Industries Inc., 30 employees, $11.7 million in sales;
  • Polyfil: 27 employees, $10.6 million in sales;
  • County Concrete Sand & Gravel: 150 employees, $38.7 million in sales;
  • Kuiken Brothers Co., 42 employees (est.), $12.6 million in sales (est.)
  • Tri-Pack Industries / Kari-Out Co.: five employees (est.), $1.9 million income.

The eight existing and future rail customers will employ an estimated total of 349 full time workers in 2011. The total annual direct economic output is estimated to be $118.8 million, which includes $38.6 million in labor income, the study said.

Besides the Morristown & Erie, Morris County is served by the Norfolk Southern Railroad and CSX; companies that acquired lines when Conrail, the federal freight railroad, was sold off; and the New York, Susquehanna and Western Railroad.

The report, called the Morris County Freight, Land Use and Infrastructure Analysis, was published in July.

A Truckload of Need

The concern is that as the economy recovers and projects associated with the Ports of Newark and Elizabeth are completed, the amount of truck traffic could choke the region.

“Regional traffic volume forecasts—particularly in terms of the projected growth of truck traffic—indicate that the future increases in demand on the highway system represent a challenge to the county and a potential threat to the economic vitality and quality of life,” the report said.

The study said the county has the opportunity to address this issue in a way that provides for the potential of future manufacturing and industrial growth by the use of parcel that were once used for manufacturing and are now vacant.

Beside the land-use implications, the study said there are several abandoned but intact rail rights-of-way that could be redeveloped into freight lines.

Manufacturing accounts for about 8.7 percent of the total employment base in the county, compared to 6.8 percent for the State of New Jersey and 7.4 percent for the greater New York City Metropolitan Statistical Area, the study said.

Key manufacturing and warehouse or transportation industries produced a combined $17.9 billion in direct economic output, with the chemical manufacturing industry providing the largest share of that total, $16.1 billion.

When indirect and induced output is added, these industry groups contribute to more than $25.2 billion in economic output in Morris County.

From this economic output, over $957 million was returned to state and local governments as tax revenue, the study said.

A 2003 state transportation department report, the latest available, indicated Morris County has a total freight flows in excess of 23 million tons including about 14.5 million tons inbound, 8 million tons outbound, and nearly 250,000 tons moved internally in the county.

Of this total freight volume less than 1 percent, 217,000 tons, was moved by rail, with the remaining 99 percent moved by truck, the study said.

The limitation on the size and weight of railcars moving to and from the county due to height restrictions on the freight lines is a chief concern.

Railcars moving to and from the east via CSX over the Morristown Line are subject to a 15-foot-5-inch vertical clearance restriction.

Railcars moving to and from the west via Norfolk Southern over the Morristown Line and Washington Secondary, a line from Phillipsburg to Hackettstown that feeds into Morris County, are subject to a 16-foot-six inch restriction under the South Main Street bridge in Phillipsburg.

The 263,000 pound weight limit on the North Jersey rail system is also a limiting factor for the railroads as 286,000-pound rail cars have become more common in the freight rail industry.

Friedland said the problem is one that will grow in the future since manufacturers are not making the smaller capacity railcars anymore since the rest of the country is able to accommodate the larger cars.

He estimated that in 25 years there will be none of the smaller capacity railcars available.

That is why, he said, his company’s biggest competitors are the warehouses just over the border in Pennsylvania.

Shippers are able to move a larger volume of goods in fewer cars there because Pennsylvania rail lines are able to handle the larger cars. Then the goods can be trucked into New Jersey.

Addressing the height and weight constraints are one of the goals of Gov. Chris Christie’s recently released state economic development plan.

Freight Villages

A model development plan raised by the study is the “freight village” that would combine economic activity oriented towards specific business sectors, which include transportation, logistics, and warehousing/distribution, and could also include some value added manufacturing, the study said.

The advantage is that the village would provide unified management of the area by a single entity and access to multiple freight transportation modes.

“This would involve truck access as a matter of course for almost any freight village, while access to other modes (rail, marine, barge, air cargo, etc.) would depend on geographic location and infrastructure conditions,” the study said.

The study identified four potential areas that could accommodate such a freight village: the former Hercules site in Roxbury; a site on the south side of the Dover and Rockaway Rail Line realignment near the Denville border; an area east and south of Route 10 in Whippany and East Hanover; and along Green Pond Road in the Rockaway Township/Denville border.


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