For the first time in decades, railways through Letcher County are carrying more than just coal gondolas.
And that may be another tool for economic development in the county.
Since at least the 1970s, locomotives running through Letcher County have pulled nothing other than coal or work trains. However, CSX Inc. has changed to a “new schedule railroading system,” meaning shipments are now sent by the most direct route, no matter where that route is or what the cargo is. Rails through Letcher County now carry general mixed freight.
CSX changed the way it routes trains last year, and began pulling a variety of freight through this area recently. It’s also pulling fewer trains. Laura Phelps with CSX media relations, said the company runs four trains a day through Letcher County — two each direction.
That could be helpful to economic development in the county, especially for land that already has all utilities and is located next to the tracks, though it’s not as helpful as it once was, said Chuck Sexton, president and CEO of One East Kentucky, a regional economic development group.
“It seems like the interest in rail transportation fluctuates,” Sexton said.
He said companies look to rail when gas and diesel prices are high because of efficiency. With fuel prices at a three-year high, rail could become more popular again. Sexton said there are few industrial sites in the region with railroad access, partly because of the difficulty in working with railroads for scheduling.
“Just because there’s a track there doesn’t mean there’s rail access,” Sexton said.
One of the few properties in Letcher County with sidetracks adjoining it is the old Sewanee Coal Tipple at Isom, which was purchased in December 1999 as an industrial site. The property is next to two unused CSX rail sidings off KY 7 South at Isom, and includes about 4.5 acres of level concrete surface built to withstand the weight of loaded coal trucks. There are several level acres in addition to those that are not covered in concrete.
“Thick concrete on a site is a hard thing to come by,” Sexton said, but said the property is smaller than most companies are looking for.
Sexton said the problem is the Sewanee site is small. Most companies that want rail access are looking for a minimum of 10 acres, and would prefer more, Sexton said.
The county bought the old tipple at auction for $140,000 after South East Coal Company went out of business. Process Systems, a locally-owned metal fabricating company that worked mostly on conveyor belt systems, operated on the site for more than 10 years after the county bought it.
The Letcher County Fiscal Court voted in 2014 to sell the property after nearby residents balked at the prospect of a pelletized wood manufacturer locating on the site. That company, if successful, would have created pressed wood pellets from scrap and mixed them with coal as a fuel stock for power plants. Some magistrates also questioned whether the company was legitimate.
Judge/ Executive Jim Ward said the site is still for sell, and several companies have looked at it. He was not aware the rail service to the area had changed, but said that might make the site more desirable for industry.
“CSX at one time sent me a letter saying they wanted to take the sidetrack out, and I wouldn’t let them,” he said. Ward said that might be the only sidetrack left in the county.