One of the common questions running through the crowd at Monday night’s meeting about the proposed Norfolk Southern staging yard near Swanton was, “Will we get to vote on this?”
The very simple answer: No.
Blame the U.S. Constitution, which among other things assigns regulation of interstate commerce to the federal government. That pretty much exempts railroads, whose commerce is most definitely interstate, from local zoning laws. Even local or state attempts to set speed limits for trains or punish the railroads for blocking street crossings for extended periods have been on shaky legal ground at best.
Federal regulations give railroads broad latitude to decide where they need to build switching yards, engine terminals, and other facilities to support their operations. And most of the time, when something of that nature is built, somebody nearby is going to be unhappy about it. Allowing a local government to say, “Not in our backyard” would often make such projects impossible, with the regulatory can being kicked down the tracks until and if a receptive community can be found.
Swanton Yard opponents’ strongest recourse would appear to be with the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, which must approve Norfolk Southern’s request to close the Scott Road grade crossing in the middle of the yard. But if Swanton Township thwarts that closing, that won’t necessarily block the project. NS could decide simply to tolerate having a road across a right-of-way it expects to widen from three tracks to 10.
Yes, doing that would require NS to break the trains in half to clear Scott Road while they’re parked there, but during the time trains are arriving, being uncoupled, then put back together, testing their air brakes, and departing, plus any time cars are being switched out or in because of repair needs, that road will be blocked. Air-brake tests sometimes take 30 minutes to complete. Sure sounds like that road, if it stays, will be blocked more often than not -- perhaps often enough that first responders and school buses would avoid it anyway.
Another common theme at Monday’s meeting was questioning whether NS really would need to use the proposed yard for staging coal trains, its stated purpose, for the long haul. While it is true that many coal-fired power plants are closing, not all of them are, and the biggest one in the area -- and second biggest in the United States -- will be one of the survivors.
Detroit Edison recently finished a $2 billion project to upgrade its 42-year-old, 3,300 megawatt Monroe plant to meet current air-quality standards. While NS won’t publicly acknowledge it, one of the most poorly kept secrets about the Swanton Yard project is that the customer whose coal traffic the yard would support is Detroit Edison. NS says it expects to handle two to three trainloads of coal through the yard, in 130-car unit trains that originate in Wyoming. All of those details match Detroit Edison’s shipment profile -- and frankly, nobody else in the Toledo area is receiving steam coal by rail any more now that Consumers Energy’s Whiting plant in Erie, Mich., and the coal units at Toledo Edison’s Bayshore plant have shut down.
It’s conceivable that some of the coal may initially go to DTE plants in Trenton and River Rouge, Mich. that are expected to close by 2023, but the Monroe plant is likely to be around for a long, long time, and therefore NS is likely to use Swanton Yard for Detroit Edison’s business for a long time too.
Up until the end of 2014, Detroit Edison coal ran through Swanton -- and sometimes got parked on the existing mainline siding there -- on a daily basis. That year, CSX and Canadian National scooped the Detroit Edison traffic away from Norfolk Southern, and apparently one of their advantages was the ability to stage the coal trains in CN’s Lang Yard along I-75 in North Toledo, whereas NS had been stashing trains not yet wanted at the power plants wherever it could find 7,000 feet of unoccupied track. In the early 2000s it had built two train-length staging tracks in central Toledo where it often stored the coal trains, but those tracks came to be used for staging other kinds of trains, such as coke bound for Detroit-area steel mills and auto-carrier cars headed to Motor City assembly plants.
Norfolk Southern apparently has won the DTE contract back, and now says it needs to build its seven-track yard in Swanton -- four double-ended tracks for staging trains, plus three stub tracks for coal car storage and repair -- to provide more flexibility for its operations and serve its officially unnamed customer more effectively. And thanks to the U.S. Constitution’s Interstate Commerce clause, it has a high likelihood of following through.