- Associated Press - Friday, December 25, 2015

PRICHARD, W.Va. (AP) - Halfway between a Virginia seaside port and one of the busiest U.S. rail yards in Chicago, a new railroad facility has opened in Appalachia as officials look to drum up business in West Virginia and potentially diversify an economy that has relied on coal for decades.

The Heartland Intermodal Gateway terminal in Prichard recently opened on 76 acres donated by Norfolk Southern. Owned by the West Virginia Port Authority, it is designed to move containers more efficiently by rail through a double-stack method while offering a cheaper alternative to gas-guzzling trucks.

Officials hope the terminal can mirror the growth generated by other facilities in places like Front Royal, Virginia, and Greer, South Carolina.

“Now they’re moving large amounts of containers,” said port authority Executive Director Neal Vance. “They’re starting to see warehousing and distribution centers pop up along the edge of their properties. I really think we could potentially see that here.”

While all those containers pass through, the economic benefits locally could come from a higher tax base and potential jobs if fringe businesses open - not to mention less wear-and-tear from trucks, Vance said.

There are dozens of intermodal facilities across North America. This is the first in West Virginia. The nearest such facility is 140 miles to the west in Georgetown, Kentucky.

According to the Federal Railroad Administration, intermodal traffic has been the fastest-growing segment of the freight rail industry since 1980. U.S. intermodal facilities shipped a record 13.5 million containers and trailers in 2014 and accounted for 22 percent of revenue for major U.S. railroads - more than coal, which previously had been the largest single course of rail revenue, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.

The facility also will serve as a cargo transfer station along the Norfolk Southern rail line. But the facility loads containers, not coal. Vance said it’s possible the facility could help ease the state’s dependence on a mining industry that has lost thousands of jobs in recent years.

Marketing efforts are ongoing through the West Virginia and Virginia port authorities, the West Virginia Development Office and Norfolk Southern. So far, Vance said, discussions have taken place with companies dealing with timber, steel and auto parts, along with small businesses.

An official opening will be held in the spring. Until business picks up, a small crew practices using a large truck to lift containers onto rail cars along the facility’s half-mile lot.

Vance said companies could see a savings of $891 per container by using the intermodal facility instead of driving 461 miles by truck from nearby Huntington to the port of Virginia in Norfolk. The savings would be $681 if trucks come to Prichard instead of driving to an intermodal facility 150 miles to the north in Columbus, Ohio.

“Hopefully, when we’re saving them that money, they can expand, grow and export more,” Vance said.

The South Carolina Port Authority’s inland port in Greer, South Carolina, opened in 2013 and is located near a BMW plant.

The Front Royal port opened in 1989 and runs along the Norfolk Southern corridor 60 miles west of Washington, D.C. The port has generated more than $700 million in area investments by companies and helped create 8,000 jobs in a rural area. Home Depot, Kohl’s, Rite Aid and Red Bull have distribution centers nearby.

Among the first customers at the West Virginia facility will be D&F; Trucking of Logan County, which stopped hauling coal in 2012 due to the industry’s downturn and switched to long-haul shipments of lumber and scrap metal for overseas markets. D&F; currently sends three trucks to the port in Norfolk.

“Everybody’s got to look for different ways to make a living,” D&F; President Jon Doty. “It opened up new opportunities for us.”

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