Back on track

Watco purchases Haywood railway lines
By Shelby Harrell Staff Writer | Jul 25, 2014
Photo by: Patrick Parton Pictured is the new locomotive that will be passing through Waynesville and Canton starting this Saturday, when Watco Companies officially takes ownership of the railroad tracks that extend from Asheville to Dillsboro.

Starting this Saturday, the train coming through Waynesville and Canton will be displaying the yellow and black colors of the Blue Ridge Southern Railroad, the company that has bought out Norfolk Southern in the region.

Watco Companies has purchased three railroad branches in Buncombe, Haywood, Henderson and Jackson counties that will now operate under a new name. The black and white Norfolk Southern train will pass through Haywood County for the last time on Friday.

“We are going to serve the same rail line from Asheville to just past Sylva in the Great Smoky Mountain Expressway,” said Stefan Loeb, senior vice president of marketing for Watco Companies. "We’re here to stay. We’re not in the business of shutting down.”

After several months of negotiations, Norfolk Southern sold its line extending from Asheville to Dillsboro, along with some other lines in the Asheville area.

The Blue Ridge Southern Railroad is a class III shortline railroad operating more than 91.8 miles in Western North Carolina. It will operate with 10 locomotives, and lines will extend from Murphy Junction to Dillsboro, Asheville to East Flat Rock, and Hendersonville to Pisgah Forest.

Because of its short line carriers, Watco will be able to increase the profitability and efficiency of operations, as well as offer greater control of shipments and associated costs. It owns 30 short line railroads operating on more than 4,600 miles of track, as well as 27 industrial contract-switching locations

“We have a very good partnership with Norfolk Southern, and we’re always looking for opportunity to expand to different rail lines,” Loeb said. “We bring more of a locally focused entrepreneurial spirit in the company. Our first goal is to provide the same level of service, and then hopefully go out and grow more business.”

Mark Clasby, executive director of the Haywood County Economic Development Commission, said the railroad was a critical asset the Evergreen packaging plants in Canton and in Waynesville and Giles Chemical, carrying a mixture of wood chips, coated paper and chemicals.

Clasby said he was confident that a new owner of the railway lines would not change anything.

"It's still a freight line," he said.

Loeb said Watco and Norfolk Southern had been talking about the purchase of the lines for two years. He said Watco representatives have been in discussion with Giles Chemical and Evergreen Packaging.

Jason Bumgarner, the plant manager of Giles Chemical, confirmed that nothing would change for his business with the new ownership. Giles Chemical built its business in Waynesville more than 60 years ago because of its railway availability.

“They’ve sold lines to a different railroad company but the rail is staying here,” Bumgarner said. “The only difference is our main lines will be more localized.”

A representative from Evergreen Packaging could not be reached for comment.

“I think this will be a good change and a seamless transition,” Bumgarner added. “They’re bringing in their own locomotives, but it shouldn’t be any different … They’ve said it would have more of a personal touch, and we’re going right along with that.”

Remembering the train

Giles Chemical in Waynesville has been open and operating since 1950, and the railway has been exporting its raw materials by train since that time.

“The way a lot of our raw materials come in is by rail,” Bumgarner said, adding that the train comes in seven nights a week. “We’re a pretty substantial user.”

Business aside, many Haywood County natives remember the train as a fond memento of childhood.

Ernestine Parton, 79, grew up in Clyde and remembers riding the train to and from town and into Asheville, as far back as 1940.

“I remember riding it when I was 5 or 6 years old,” Parton said, adding that her family  shared one car. “Back then, that how the people came to Waynesville — they’d ride the train and spend their summers here. We only had one family car. You couldn’t just run out an jump in a car.”

Back then, the trains were different, Parton said. Rather than the type of commodity trains that are seen carrying materials through town today, in the 1940 and 1950s the trains shuttled people back and forth, too.

Parton often would ride the train into Asheville to go on the occasional shopping trip or to visit an eye doctor since there weren’t any located in Haywood County. The longest trip she ever made on the train was traveling to Charleston, South Carolina, to visit family — a trip that lasted all day.

“That was a treat for us to get to ride the train and go to Asheville,” Parton said. “I just remember being fascinated with going to the bathroom while moving. And I liked being in the dining car.”

Parton said she was about 12 or 13 when the train stopped coming to Clyde because more people were using vehicles, but the route still came through Waynesville. Later on, she took the train to attend the Women’s College in Greensboro, which is currently University of North Carolina Greensboro.

“I had to take a trunk and everything I had on that train,” she said with a laugh.

Parton can't remember the exact date the trains switched transporting only materials, but the memories of riding the train flood back to her whenever she sees it passing by.

Change for the better

Robin Chapman, director of public relations for Norfolk Southern Corporation, said the transfer of the ownership would be effective July 26, making Friday the last day the Haywood tracks will be in use under the Norfolk ownership.

According to Chapman, Norfolk sold the lines to Watco as a way to make the rail lines more productive and efficient.

“This is kind of a continuation of a long-running program that we have spinning off of marginally profitable line segments to short line railroads that can operate them more efficiently than we could by giving more close attention to individual customers along the line than we would be able to,” Chapman said. “And also by using fewer employees perhaps than would be necessary for a smaller railroad.”

The lines that have been purchased are named the T-Line, which runs west of Asheville; the W-Line, which runs south of Asheville; and the TR-Line, which branches off the W-Line south of Asheville.

“We see this cluster of rail lines around Asheville as a growth opportunity for Watco,” Loeb said in a press release. “We will have a marketing officer located in the community and will be looking to work with local communities to market the region.”

Clasby said there definitely was an interest in growth and expansion involving the railways in Haywood County.

"The challenge is finding property that would connect to the rail line," Clasby said.

Watco and Blue Ridge Southern leaders are currently informing the Norfolk Southern employees about the changes and explaining the process for them to apply to become members of the Blue Ridge Southern team. The general manager and marketing officer will be named in the weeks ahead.

Loeb said Blue Ridge Southern Railroad had re-hired many of the same Norfolk Southern employees, and also hired nearly 40 more people.

“We want to assemble the best team of people possible to serve our new customers,” Loeb said. “We want men and women who will make sure our customers’ transportation needs are met on a daily basis. We are committed to doing our best every day to help our Customers be more competitive in the global economy.”

For more information about Watco, visit www.watcocompanies.com.

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