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What a freight rail strike could mean for the Tri-State

A view of CSX's Queensgate Yard from Union Terminal in 2017.
Tana Weingartner
A view of CSX's Queensgate Yard from Union Terminal in 2017.

Two of the nation's seven largest-by-revenue freight rail companies run through, and operate rail yards in, the Tri-State. Passenger rail company Amtrak, which would qualify as Class I if it carried freight instead of people, also runs through the region.

What could a looming national rail worker strike mean locally?

Well, it won't be good says Robyn Bancroft, strategic initiatives manager with the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments (OKI). She's working on a Freight Transportation Plan for the OKI region.

"We are watching developments just like everybody else because of the huge impact that it could potentially have, certainly not just on the railroads, but throughout the supply chain, and all the freight modes," she says.

CSX and Norfolk Southern run through and operate rail yards in Greater Cincinnati. Bancroft says should the rail lines shut down, a lot of that freight will move to local highways.

"If there was a strike with the railroads, to keep things moving, whatever freight that could get moved to trucks will get moved to trucks," she points out, adding, "As we all know, there are truck driver shortages as well."

A work stoppage could affect commutes, too, by exacerbating existing conditions.

"We're already fully aware of service delays and choke points along the rail network that are already happening in Cincinnati. We certainly have a number of communities in Hamilton County, and Butler County in particular, that are dealing with at-grade crossing blockages," Bancroft explains. "I'm just concerned that a strike could potentially make these conditions worse for our traveling public."

Railroad companies don't share much about their operations so statistics about how much freight rolls down the tracks locally is hard to gauge. However, OKI reports about 137 trains move through the region each day, with CSX's Queensgate Yard near Union Terminal as the busiest.

According to Federal Highway Administration data, in 2017, more than 7.5 million tons of freight moved by rail through this region. The value of that freight totals nearly $7 billion.

Bancroft notes that while waybill data for the Cincinnati region shows rail freight tonnage has decreased 14% since 2010, the total value of that freight has gone up 22%.

If the trains stop running, all that freight will likely sit in rail yards around the country, including CSX's Queensgate Yard, Norfolk Southern's Gest St. Yard, and in other areas like Norwood and Sharonville.

In a release, CSX says it's taking steps to ensure the safety of hazardous materials. The company says it issued an embargo on all safety-sensitive freight beginning this week. It's also working to avoid the potential of safety-sensitive and hazardous materials being left unsecured or unprotected.

Norfolk Southern, similarly, says it has issued embargoes on rail security-sensitive material and certain time-sensitive shipments.

Amtrak, which runs locally on freight rails, is also cutting service.

WVXU's Ann Thompson contributed to this report.

Senior Editor and reporter at WVXU with more than 20 years experience in public radio; formerly news and public affairs producer with WMUB. Would really like to meet your dog.