Carolina Coastal Railway

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Taking No Shortcuts
Carolina Coastal delivers on its service promises

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It doesn’t happen by coincidence.

Though consumers and businesses might assume the things they’ve requested will arrive at homes or receiving docks without incident, a good deal of the connective behind-the-scenes framework is reliant on relationships that few ever take time to ponder.

That reality is one Douglas Golden, president of Carolina Coastal Railway Inc., is keenly aware of and tries to build on every single day while morphing clients and competitors into colleagues.

“The rail industry is multi-faceted and there needs to be a lot of cooperative and partnership-type arrangements to make anything work. We have a pretty good rapport with our two big railroad connections, and if we didn’t, we’d be out of luck on a lot of stuff.

“We also have a very good rapport with our customer base. We almost serve as a marketing and sales arm for the bigger railroads. There’s kind of an inter-relationship. And then among the short-lines there’s an inter-relationship that I think is very important to the success. If you develop those relationships, I think you’ll be successful.

“And if you don’t, I think you’re going to struggle.”

Make no mistake, Golden knows the industry of which he speaks.

Carolina Coastal Railway began operation in 1989 when Genesee & Wyoming Inc. took over a 17-mile line from Norfolk Southern that served the stations at Pinetown, Acre, Terra Ceia, Bishops Crossing, Pantego and Bellhaven in eastern North Carolina. The line’s car traffic had dwindled significantly by 2003, however, which prompted Golden – already a veteran of the rail business, particularly with operations in need of a rebound – to make it a another reclamation project.

“I had a small operation in Pennsylvania at that time and I was looking for something small that was in a turnaround situation,” he said. “I’d heard Genesee & Wyoming was getting ready to file for an abandonment petition, so I went down on my own and talked to some of the customers along the line and said ‘I think there’s a chance of doing something here.’ So I approached them about acquiring it.”

The deal was made official in July 2003, and in the subsequent several months Golden veered between continuing to lay groundwork with the line’s former and potential customers, and – especially when the line moved just nine cars in the first six months – pondering exactly what he’d gotten himself into.

“I was wondering if we’d made the right decision. I was beginning to wonder,” he said. “But we had lived up to what we told the customers we would do, and the customers started coming around and traffic started to move after about six months. In that part of the world, it’s a very seasonal business. Business usually moves fall, winter and early spring, and not much happens over the summer.

“In this case, in the fall nothing moved, but there was business that was moving. It just wasn’t moving by rail. Our work kind of started getting that business moving back to rail right after the first of the next year and our business started picking up. We developed a couple of new customers. We worked really hard to get some customers who were there and hadn’t shipped for a long, long time to start shipping again, and all of a sudden traffic started growing again pretty quickly.”

Golden had two part-time employees upon taking over the business, and, he said with a chuckle, that was only because it takes two people to run the train. Those two would come in once or twice a week as needed to provide service with the line’s one locomotive. Growth in traffic prompted a need for more regular service and warranted the addition of both a full-timer and another part-timer. And, in 2007, Golden took over a nearby 142-mile line from Norfolk Southern that connected Raleigh to Plymouth.

The longer line intersects with Coastal Carolina’s other line at Pinetown and includes major stations at Plymouth, Pinetown, Washington, Chocowinity, Greenville, Farmville, Walstonburg, Stantonsburg, Wilson, Sims, Bailey, Middlesex, Zebulon, Wendell, Knightdale and Raleigh.

Interchanges are made at Norfolk Southern’s Chocowinity and Glenwood (Raleigh) yards and connections with CSX are available at Greenville and Wilson.

Those 142 miles, Golden said, signaled the moment when things went from small to less small.

“All of a sudden, we went from this little 17-mile railroad with not much happening, to a fairly large operation,” he said. “On start-up day of the new operation we had 10 employees and a couple of part-time people, and we were struggling to find locomotives at that time. We had two, and a third en route on start-up day. And we have grown considerably just since then.”

In 2010, Coastal Carolina began serving the Port of Morehead City on a one-mile spur between Radio Island and Morehead City, where additional connection with Norfolk Southern is also possible. In 2011, it added a 20-mile line from a connection with CSX at Rocky Mount to Spring Hope. The locomotive fleet has grown to 19 units and the line owns about 75 freight cars to meet customer needs. The railroad now has more than 30 employees, who really are the backbone of its success.

Business is now close to twice what it was at the time of the Raleigh-to-Plymouth acquisition, and the operation employs its own equipment and track maintenance staff – work which had previously been contracted out. Major track projects are still done via contract, but the bulk of the smaller concerns these days are taken care of in-house rather than with outsourced labor.

It’s a long way from where things started, but the uptick in size hasn’t changed the fundamentals.

“The business was always there to be had, if somebody wanted to have it,” Golden said. “Our business plan was that we were going to try and attract as much of it as we can, because that’s the business that’s there. We provided the service that we told people we were going to provide.

“We told the customers, ‘We’re going to provide you with regular service. We’re going to operate on these days. If need be, we’ll operate extra trains, but if we have business we’re going to run. We’re not going to just let it sit there.’ We developed a service plan to meet the needs of our customers. We told them here’s what we’re going to do, and that’s what we did.

“And when they saw that, they realized they could rely on us.”

AT A GLANCE

WHO: Carolina Coastal Railway

WHAT: Short-line railroad operating 17 miles of track from Pinetown to Belhaven, N.C., 142 miles from Raleigh and Plymouth, N.C. and 20 miles from Rocky Mount to Spring Hope, N.C.

WHERE: Wilson, N.C.

WEBSITE: www.mlrail.com/CLNA