The Commonwealth Railway is a short-line Class III railroad. It operates on a portion of the track built by the Atlantic and Danville Railroad in the 1880's and inherited by its successors, the Norfolk, Franklin & Danville Railway and then the Norfolk Southern. Since 1996, the short-line railroad has been part of the Genesee & Wyoming network.
The rail line runs for 19 miles from Suffolk to the West Norfolk area of Portsmouth. Its major customers include the BASF (formerly Ciba) specialty chemicals plant on the Nansemond River in Suffolk, the the U S. Amines plant on the Elizabeth River, and the Virginia International Gateway (VIG) container terminal operated by the Virginia Port Authority on the Elizabeth River in Portsmouth.
If the proposed Craney Island Marine Terminal (CIMT) is constructed north of the Virginia International Gateway (VIG), the Commonwealth Railway would also carry containers to and from that shipping terminal as well.
The Commonwealth Railway connects to both the CSX and the Norfolk Southern in Suffolk. That provides shippers using Virginia International Gateway (VIG) or the future Craney Island Marine Terminal (CIMT) the option of using either Class I railroad to carry containers to their final destination. Dual access and rail competition for shippers was ensured in 2006 when the Commonwealth Railway purchased over 12 miles of track that it had been leasing from Norfolk Southern. That track had been orginially by the old Atlantic and Danville Railroad.
The short-line railroad served two chemical plants located on the Elizabeth River in Portsmouth, until BASF closed its West Norfolk plant in 2007. That industrial site has been used for nearly a century to manufacture, insecticides, refrigerants, and a variety of other chemicals. Most recently, it was the site of BASF's Super Absorbent Polymers Plant, and:1
In 2006, the Commonwealth Railway had only two locomotives, three employees, and just three major customers. All three were chemical production facilities; until the APM Terminal opened, the Commonwealth Railway carried no container traffic.
When the BASF plant on the Elizabeth River closed, the U.S. Amines plant on the Elizabeth River and the Ciba specialty chemicals plant on the Nansemond River did not generate enough traffic to justify maintaining the railroad. If A. P. Moeller/Maersk had not opened its new A. P. Moeller (APM) Terminal - now Virginia International Gateway (VIG) - on the Elizabeth River in 2007, the Commonwealth Railway would have shut down operations that year.2
The Commonwealth Railway is an essential part of the transportation network for that container shipping terminal. The Class III short-line railroad interchanges with two Class I railroads in Suffolk, CSX and Norfolk Southern. Those two lines compete with each other, with trucking companies, and with barge services to haul containers for shippers using the Virginia International Gateway (VIG).
When the shipping terminal first opened in 2007, the Commonwealth Railway still crossed multiple streets at grade in the cities of Portsmouth, Chesapeake, and Suffolk. Long trains (up to 7,500 feet long) moving slowly into or out of the terminal would have blocked traffic at those crossings for excessively long periods of time, causing citizen complaints and interfering with the ability of fire/police to respond to events.
The short-term solution was to transport just short trains (up to 3,500 feet) from the terminal. Shorter trains created shorter delays at the at-grade highway rail crossings, though a greater number of short trains meant more-frequent delays.
Short trains are too inefficient for cost-effective, long-distance travel. The Commonwealth Railway built a new marshalling yard east of Suffolk where cars from the short trains were combined into the longer trains required by CSX and Norfolk Southern for transport to distant destinations. The Suffolk Marshalling Yard could be expanded further, but that would require the expensive relocation of two large raw water pipelines construced by the cities of Norfolk and Portsmouth.
The track was upgraded so Commonwealth Railway locomotives could double their speed and pull trains at 20 miles/hour. There was little need for speed in the railroad's operations, but faster trains reduced the delays at street crossings.3
The long-term solution for eliminating train-caused congestion at South Hampton Roads street crossings was to replace the old track and construct 4.5 miles of new track within the median strips of the Western Freeway (Route 164) and I-664. Those highways had been constructed in the 1980's, and even then were planned to use the media for freight rail in anticipation of future port expansion. The Virginia Port Authority managed the Commonwealth Railway Mainline Safety Relocation Project (Median Rail Project).4
The Virginia taxpayer funded the $60 million relocation of the railroad, because eliminating 14 at-grade street crossings benefitted primarily the general public. The private railroad did not need to move its line to highway medians for its own purposes, though the relocation provided brand-new track and railbed infrastructure for future maintenance. The Commonwealth Railway did invest $14 million in upgrading its other stretches of track and building the new marshalling yard to assemble long trains.5
The state also funded a portion of the cost for the Commonwealth Railway to purchase the Norfolk Southern track. Enhancing competition between CSX and Nortfolk Southern at the Virginia International Gateway (VIG) terminal was expected to increase the number of containers transported through the port and spur local jobs, so ensuring containers could be interchanged equally with either Class I railroad was also in the public interest.
Due to the location of privately-owned railroad tracks, the Norfolk Southern has a competitive edge at the Norfolk International Terminal (NIT) and the CSX has a competitive edge at the Portsmouth Marine Terminal (PMT). The Commonwealth Railway assembles trains at Virginia International Gateway (VIG) and pulls them to the Suffolk Marshalling Yard, where Norfolk Southern or CSX locomotives replace Commonwealth Railway locomotives and transport the trains to the separate tracks of those railroads.
If business at the terminal expands substantially or if Craney Island Marine Terminal (CIMT) is constructed, the single-line track between the Virginia International Gateway (VIG) and theSuffolk Marshalling Yard will have to be double-tracked. In addition, increased use of the rail network could require separating car and rail traffic at the current CSX and Norfolk Southern at-grade railroad crossings in Suffolk.
The "neutral" access provided by the Commonwealth Railway has created a more balanced business environment at the Virginia International Gateway (VIG) terminal:6
Virginia also helped fund improvements further west, including along the New River near West Virginia, in order to improve inland rail service.
The Heartland Corridor project enlarged tunnels through mountains in Virginia/West Virginia. That enabled the Norfolk Southern to stack one container on top of another in Hampton Roads, then transport "double-stacked" rail cars to Columbus (Ohio) and on to Chicago.
The CSX had an equivalent project, the CSX National Gateway, primarily to improve north-south transport. Faster transport by rail, both at the port and inland, made the Port of Virginia terminals more competitive against rivals at Savannah, Charleston, Baltimore, and New York/New Jersey.
Near Virginia International Gateway (VIG), the old route of the Commonwealth Railway was transferred to the Virginia Port Authority as part of the Mainline Safety Relocation Project (Median Rail Project). The City of Chesapeake planned to acquire the route from the state and incorporate it into the local trail network.7