Gov. Tom Wolf announced Tuesday that two local railroads will receive funding for rail freight improvements.
Buffalo & Pittsburgh Railroad Inc. will receive $700,000 for these repairs in Elk, McKean and Warren counties: replacing about 44,000 feet of rail and 2,500 ties and surfacing the line. Western New York and Pennsylvania Railroad will receive $4.7 million to replace three thru truss bridges and rehabilitate two abutments on a thru-girder bridge, located in McKean and Venango counties.
They were among 26 projects that will receive a combined $31.3 million through the Rail Transportation Assistance Program (RTAP) and the Rail Freight Assistance Program (RFAP). Pennsylvania Department of Transportation’s board of directors — the State Transportation Commission — voted to approve the funding awards.
Ray Martel, president and CEO of Western New York & Pennsylvania Railroad, said the bridges that are being replaced are in Eldred in McKean County and in Oil City and Sugar Creek, both in Venango County.
Martel said the main purpose for the project is the bridges are 120 years old. “They’re good, they’re not going to fall down,” they’re just “not up to standards.”
He said engineering for the project has been underway for about six months, and the company hopes to start construction late this year. He noted the Eldred bridge, which is the biggest bridge to be replaced, should be complete by the end of 2023, if not sooner.
Martel described the replacement process, saying the new bridge will be built off to the side, then the crew will replace the old bridge with the new bridge structure that is already built.
Replacing the bridges this way means that each bridge will only be out to railroad customers for about one week during the replacement process. Martel said the railroad is working “with customers to make sure they have enough product on hand” to last while service is down.
Despite the brief pause in service, the bridge replacements will ultimately benefit the train’s customers by increasing how much that can be shipped in a railcar.
He explained that customers have had to light-load cars, which causes them to pay more money per ton to move product. Helping lower shipping costs will help companies be more efficient and allow them to grow. Bringing in more money means they would be able to pay more in taxes or pay employees more.
The bridge replacements will bring the line up to the standard weight limit of 286,000 pounds per railcar. Railcars can currently weigh up to 273,000 traveling by Western New York & Pennsylvania through McKean County, which forces companies to light-load every railcar by 13,000 pounds.
Martel noted the $4.7 million funding is a match for an $11.9 million federal CRISI grant. Together these will pay for most of the $17.8 million project, with the railroad and its customers making up the $1.2 million difference.
He credits U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., state Rep. Martin Causer, R-Turtlepoint, and former state Sen. Joe Scarnati, R-Brockway, for their efforts in helping secure funding.
“They have been incredible supporters and very, very helpful throughout this process,” Martel said.
He said PennDOT has been “fantastic,” too.
At the Buffalo & Pittsburgh Railroad, Jerry Vest, vice president, said the railroad is a regional one that runs from the northern boundary of Allegheny County, Pa., and from New Castle, up to Buffalo, N.Y.
“We’ve been working to upgrade (lines) and improve service so we can handle our customers better,” Vest explained.
The company will use the funding it received to replace ties and rail and resurface the track on various spots across the counties of Elk, McKean and Warren.
Vest said construction will begin as soon as possible, hopefully late summer/early fall but possibly early next year. He explained this type of work is generally completed between the spring thaw and November, depending on the weather, as track work is difficult once the ground freezes.
“We typically only do emergency repairs in the winter months,” he noted.
The railroad has to get an agreement with PennDOT in place before construction begins.
He does not anticipate construction to be highly disruptive to rail customers.
Vest said construction will be scheduled in a way that gives customers windows in which they can use the tracks, with repairs likely happening during 12-hour windows.
“We try to schedule the work to have minimal disruption to the movement of trains,” he explained.
The project will help Buffalo & Pittsburgh Railroad customers to maintain railcar weight of 286,000 pounds, which the railroad’s main line is currently able to do.
Vest does not know how long the project will take, as the project will be done in segments. First they will replace rail at the construction sites, then ties. Finally, they will go back for resurfacing.
He noted the railroad will back this project up with other work they are doing, which will help speed up the process.
“PennDOT has been a great partner for the freight railroad,” Vest added, noting the state of Pennsylvania has more freight railroads than any other state. He said the agency has been quite helpful in getting the lines upgraded.
Vest said, “The Buffalo & Pittsburgh Railroad has been part of the western Pennsylvania economy for going on four decades,” as it formed in the 1980s. “The communities we serve are excellent; the customers we serve, fantastic. I hope the (Buffalo & Pittsburgh Railroad) will be around for a long time.”
According to a press release from Wolf’s office, Pennsylvania has 65 operating railroads — more than any other state — along with roughly 5,600 miles of freight lines.