PAR Sale: Halfway there?

STRANGERS ON THE TRAIN INDICATE PAR SALE ON A COMPLETELY DIFFERENT TRACK THAN EVERYONE EXPECTED. CSX, NS, AND CONRAIL SENIOR EXECUTIVES COMB EAST DEERFIELD AND MECHANICVILLE YARDS.

15.October, East Deerfield MA – After weeks running back and forth along the PAR Main Line beneath peaking New England foliage, leaving only a churning wake of fluttering fallen leaves and head-scratching speculation, the post-PAR world is taking some shape. After disposing of countless rumors and gathering the few plausible truths, a surprising but sensible prospect has emerged to resolve the twin, dire dilemmas of PAR’s disposal AND New England’s freight rail system. 

Map of Pan Am Southern routes
The entire PAS system comprises 436.7 track miles. Of the total, 238.3 miles are PAS-owned, and 198.4 are entitled by rights retained or granted. West-East, comprising the NS Patriot Corridor (139.7 miles between Mechanicville NY and CPF 312 in Ayer MA), plus the 30.5-mile Rotterdam Branch extension between Mechanicville, splitting to Rotterdam Jct. and Mohawk Yard (See Rotterdam Cluster map, below). Four Ayer-area branches add 10.6 miles to the PAS network (See Ayer Cluster map, below). The Adams Industrial Branch adds 4.6 track miles. Yard facilities on the Patriot Corridor include Mechanicville, North Adams, East Deerfield, Gardner, and East Fitchburg (all in MA).
North-South, comprising 184.5 track miles between White River Jct. VT and New Haven CT, owned by three railroads. NECR owns 72.8 miles of the Conn River Line between WRJ and Northfield MA; PAS retains shared rights at all facilities. MBTA owns 49.7 miles of the Conn River Line between Northfield and Springfield MA; PAS retains exclusive freight rights. Amtrak owns the 62-mile Springfield Line between Springfield and New Haven CT; PAS retains overhead rights. The southern tip of the line is limited access to to Cedar Hill Yard via CSX, and the 42.9-mile Berlin-Waterbury-Derby Branch, and captive 4.5-mile Plainville-Southington Branch interchange at Berlin (See Connecticut Cluster map, below). Yards on the North-South line are East Deerfield, Springfield (CSX), Cedar Hill CT (CSX), and Plainfield CT.

The dilemmas

The first dilemma is finding a buyer for PAR’s half-interest in Pan Am Southern. The 12 year-old joint venture between PAR and Norfolk Southern owns the ~140-mile Pan Am Southern Patriot Corridor between Ayer/Littleton MA (Willows; CPF 312) and Mechanicville NY (XO; CPF 468), and another ~98 miles of branch lines, as well as operating rights on ~198 miles owned by others. In terms of the entire PAR system, this trackage is known as the West Side. (the East Side is from Ayer MA to Mattawamkeag ME, and branches.) NS has shown no interested in selling its share or buying PAR’s, but anybody who does needs NS’s approval; at least one qualified party’s bid has been vetoed {ANRP exclusive sources}. 

The second dilemma is that, BOTH New England mainline access routes are on the verge of giving truth to the “You cahn’t get theyah from heeyah” chestnut. PAS’s Patriot Corridor and CSX’s Berkshire Subdivision both rely on lengthy, antiquated structures that are each in their own ways functionally inadequate, and in need of major rework. The Patriot Corridor runs through the 4.75-mile Hoosac Tunnel, which was out of service for nearly two months this year for emergency repairs, perpetually at risk of flooding, and currently unable to carry domestic double-stack container cars, through its Plate F (19′-6″) opening. The Berkshire Subdivision begins at the eastern bank of the Hudson River in Castleton-on-Hudson NY (crossing to Selkirk), where it rides up on the Alfred H. Smith Memorial Bridge, which has reportedly been reduced to single-track use due to noticeable instability under heavy loading {ANRP exclusive sources}. This summer, the AHS began a multi-year project to repair six of it 25 support towers, and other upgrades {bergmannpc.com}.

So, New England’s rival Class I franchises are at risk, and the region’s skeletal rail system is up for grabs, potentially to be parted out. Inevitably, CSX and NS would fight one another to the death, eventually opening the field to an unwanted decapitalist.

Men working on the Alfred H. Smith Memorial railroad bridge
Repairs underway to the CSX Alfred H. Smith Memorial Bridge in New York {bergmannpc.com}.

Conrail returns to New England

In the late afternoon of Tues.13.October, executives from Norfolk Southern, CSX, and Conrail arrived in the Albany area. The next morning, they boarded OCS-14 at XO heading east, stopping at ED for an extended drive-around tour of the yard, and then continuing east. The idea was likely worked out sometime along the OCS end-to-end journey departing XO on 30.Sept, with senior (EVP-level) NS and CSX (and CN) officers aboard, among approximately 30 total passengers. After completing the OCS’s longest-ever route (terminated at Northern Maine Junction ME (NMJ) due to restricted clearance for the (ST101 Observation car). Some of the passengers continued by Hi-rail to Mattawamkeag. The OCS has run an estimated 3000 miles since 01.September.

The emblem of a great rivalry is recognizing where opposing strategies benefit from aligned tactics. NS and CSX both wanted “big” Conrail largely for its dense, lucrative terminals in the port locales of Newark and Philadelphia, and the Detroit auto manufacturing hub. Unable to agree on how to tease apart these thickets, they agreed to temporarily retain “little” Conrail as a co-owned terminal and switching agent/operator in what became known as the Shared Assets (Newark, Philadelphia, Detroit), until they could figure out the split. That never happened, as what turned out was that the most efficacious line of division was along the Conrail shares. The temporary solution became permanent, appreciated by Conrail’s owners and their customers.

 

Shared interests make shared assets

Now it looks like a new Shared Asset region will be added to Conrail, based on new shared interests recognized by the rivals. Speculating, it seems that CSX will acquire PAR’s share of PAS, and Conrail will operate the line and branches between Ayer and Mechanicville with equal consideration for NS and CSX. NS would also require rights along CSX’s main line (Worcester – Selkirk), and that may also fall under Conrail’s operation. It’s that simple.

That broadaxe Solomonism leaves a lot of details to be sorted out, such as who operates the north-south Conn River line? Is CSX acquiring PAR’s interest in PAS, and what form will the acquisition take. There are many moving parts on the periphery. Who will own/operate the PAR East side? Does the Commonwealth of Massachusetts have compelling interests it will pursue? Stay tuned.

AHS Bridge
Two CSX trains cross the Alfred H. Smith Bridge between Selkirk NY and Castleton. The 5,255’ long railroad bridge features two main long span steel trusses with spans of 602 feet and 409 feet. In addition, there are 52 steel girder approach spans.The substructure consists of 25 steel towers ranging in height from 30’ to 135’. The structure was originally constructed in 1921. {