Short-line rail companies continue to carry their weight on routes that otherwise might have been abandoned
The train grinds to a halt, and engineer Eddie Pitchford breaks out his cell phone.
Two locomotives with coal cars in tow sit idle in a wooded area north of downtown Athens, and the train’s progress rests on the word of an anonymous dispatcher 300 miles away.
“Some days we get hung up here,” Pitchford said.
The Hartwell Railroad freight train must cross CSX Transportation’s main rail line running between Atlanta and Wilmington, N.C., before it can proceed into downtown Athens. From his cell phone, Pitchford calls Jacksonville, Fla., the corporate headquarters of CSX, to ask for permission to proceed.
“Sometimes it’s busy, and it takes them a while to answer the phone,” Pitchford says.
Although Hartwell Railroad trains have top priority because they operate on the older of the two lines, engineers and their trains are at the mercy of a dispatcher in Jacksonville. If the dispatcher pleases, he can make the Hartwell Railroad train wait while CSX trains whiz by on the main line.
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