Company eyes reactivating rail line for small freight train operation

Akron Metro RTA owns the tracks and is seeking to use land for a bike and hike trail

Phil Keren
Kent Weeklies
A car crosses an inactive railroad track crossing on Barlow Road in Hudson.. The track is being eyed for reactivation by a small railroad company [Mike Cardew/Beacon Journal]

HUDSON — A new company is interested in reactivating a railroad track and setting up a small freight train operation, but the agency that owns the line says it is seeking to use the land for a bike and hike trail.

Jeff White, a founder of Hudson & Southern Railway, said his company wants to reactivate a 12-to-15 mile railroad line that passes through Hudson, Stow, Silver Lake and Cuyahoga Falls. 

"This is a [small] freight operation," said White. "Not a passenger operation." He added he felt this section of railroad track is "not a viable line" for a passenger operation.

While noting he would be a part owner of Hudson & Southern Railway, White said he plans to work as a conductor, engineer and even a mechanic if needed.

Initially, White said his company would store rail cars for offline customers of Norfolk Southern and CSX, and charge a fee for that service.

"That's where we would get our base profits coming from," said White, a career railroader who said he is currently an employee of Norfolk Southern.

Road signs warn of a crossing for inactive railroad track crossing on Barlow Road in Hudson.

Company needs to lease tracks, get board approval

White said the tracks that Hudson & Southern Railway wants to use are out of service, but not abandoned. The Akron Metro Regional Transit Authority (RTA) owns the majority of this section of tracks, but Norfolk Southern owns a portion, according to White.

The tracks travel over Barlow Road near Ellsworth Meadows Golf Club in Hudson, as well as Springdale Drive, Hudson Drive and Graham Road. The tracks also cross Broad Boulevard and run parallel to the CSX tracks next to Route 8 in Cuyahoga Falls.

White said his company met with Akron Metro RTA in fall of 2019. COVID-19 paused the company's efforts for the past eight months, but work on the project has rekindled in the last month or so.

At the same time, Metro RTA is working on a different use for the tracks and the area around it. Valerie Shea, director of planning and strategic development for Metro RTA, confirmed her organization met with Hudson & Southern Railway about a year ago, but had not had a conversation since then.

Since meeting with Hudson & Southern Railway, Shea said Metro RTA has spoken with officials in Cuyahoga Falls, Hudson, Silver Lake and Stow.

"Our understanding is that there's a pretty big interest [among the municipalities] for using [the railroad track] land for a [bike and hike] trail project," said Shea. "That's kind of been what we've been pursuing a little more."

Shea said Metro RTA is planning to seek the Federal Transit Administration's concurrence to use the rail line land and its surrounding right-of-way as a bike and hike trail. Once the formal request is made, Shea said she does not know when the approval would come from the FTA.

As the owner of the property, Shea emphasized that Akron Metro RTA "is working with all the municipalities along the line" to ensure the finalized use of the land is "amenable to everybody."

Shea added Metro RTA is wiling to look at a proposal from Hudson & Southern Railway "if it's vetted through the municipalities that we've been working with."

White said Hudson & Southern Railway is now finalizing its preliminary business plan and added the firm would first need to set up a tentative agreement with Akron Metro RTA and Norfolk Southern to lease the track. Hudson & Southern Railway would then seek permission from the Surface Transportation Board (STB) to reactivate the line; White said he hopes to take the idea to the STB in spring of 2021.

If STB approves reactivating the track, White said his company could then finalize a lease deal with Akron Metro RTA and Norfolk Southern.

White noted his company would handle the repairs and maintenance work needed to make the tracks operational again. This would require working with the Ohio Rail Development Commission, which provides loans and grants to help pay for restoration work.

"If we make the progress we want to make every day, we're still looking at 2023-2024, before we would see a train run [on the track]," said White.

Long-term vision for project

After the initial business is operational, White said Hudson & Southern Railway would look at possibly setting up a transload facility in the Seasons Road area. White recently posted on Facebook that a developer approached his company about building such a facility. 

A transload facility is a "multi use" site where bulk products are transferred between trucks and rail cars, according to White. Such an operation, he said, is "perfect" for companies that need rail service but are not located near a rail line or have to send their products to remote job sites.

White said his company wants to hear from other firms that are interested in utilizing a transload facility.

In a post last month on Facebook, White stated:  "We need information on any companies within a 15-mile radius of Hudson/Stow/Cuyahoga Falls and even Akron, that ship or receive bulk materials by truck, that would like to increase their shipments or deliveries (thus increase production) but can't because …they are not located along a rail line."

He noted that one railroad car can carry the load of four trucks.

White said his goal is to have the transload facility located just off the main line with tracks traveling into it. He added that, at the beginning of the operation, loading and unloading could occur from the main line.

White said his company envisions having online and offline customers. Online customers would be located right along the tracks and Hudson & Southern Railway would deliver products to them. Offline customers are ones that need to ship or receive items via rail line, but are not located next to a rail line, according to White.

"That's where a transload facility comes in," explained White. "They lease a track (or tracks) within the facility as well as space around those tracks to set up loading/unloading equipment and they handle that process. We simply pick up and deliver the rail cars."

White noted he's learned a lot of companies want to build a manufacturing facility or a warehouse in the Seasons Road area, but would do so only if there is an active rail line nearby.

White said he spoke with two land developers who said there are companies that "absolutely" would set up shop if there was an active rail line to utilize.

"It's kind of a 'if you build it, they will come' kind of thing," said White.

These inactive railroad tracks that run through Cuyahoga Falls near Front Street are being eyed for reactivation by a company that would like to offer a small freight train operation.

Concerns raised

White said he knows reactivating the rail line has been "a touchy subject in the past," but emphasized, "We want to be a community partner…We want this to be something the community …[is] proud of."

Since publicizing his idea, White said he's heard from people who are concerned about noise from trains traveling past their homes at late hours. 

He noted modern trains are not noisy and said the tentative business plan calls for a Monday through Friday operation where trains are traveling on the track two or three days per week in either mid-morning or early afternoon. He added he expects the operation would have one locomotive and anywhere from five to 12 cars, and the train would not travel faster than 10 mph. White said quiet zones can be set up so the train does not blow its horn as it travels past a residential area.

There are also concerns about the types of materials that would be transported along the line, but White said, "we have no plans to have any kind of hazardous materials on the line." He added the area is not zoned to allow businesses that deal with hazardous materials.

"Most people who live along the tracks are going to be hard-pressed to ever even see the train," said White. 

Reporter Phil Keren can be reached at pkeren@recordpub.com, or on Twitter at @keren_phil.