NEW CASTLE, Ind. — When she moved into a house across the street from a railroad track, Rebecca Collier knew she’d have to tolerate the occasional
But she wasn’t counting on idled freight cars, lined up as far as the eye can see.
The yellow boxcars sit on a siding owned by C&NC;, a small railroad line that receives rent for storing them. For a year now, a wall nearly two miles
long has split New Castle, a city of 17,500 where the high school was named Chrysler, for the automaker that was the area’s main employer until
leaving in 2003.
The freight cars are sitting there for a reason that New Castle understands all too well: They were used to haul automobiles, but sluggish sales have
rendered their services largely unneeded.
“The owners of the (rail) cars would much rather have them out there hauling automobiles,” said Spencer Wendelin, president of Transmark
Associates, a Corydon company that manages the C&NC;and other small railroads.
“Those cars represent the potential to help the automobile industry whenever they get back to making automobiles that people are buying.”
Nationally, about 450,000 empty boxcars are sitting idle, according to the Association of American Railroads. Communities in Colorado and New Jersey
have made news with protests against their effect on nearby neighborhoods.
“It’s like the Berlin Wall,” said Lesley Reece, 82, who has lived in her New Castle home for 46 years. “Every day when I go out to get my
paper, I get madder and madder.”
Collier, 45, feels the same way.
“I used to be able to look across the street and see the kids playing at the elementary school. Now, this is all I see,” she said. “I don’t
even open my curtains.”
Before auto-parts supplier Visteon Corp. closed its New Castle plant, the tracks might not have been available for storage. Trains once ran in and out
of the factory and used the side tracks as a loading area.
To suggestions that the freight cars should be left on tracks in less-populated areas, Wendelin notes that the side routes most available for storage
are usually near industrial areas such as New Castle.
Railroad companies are losing money and employees as a result of the recession, he said. The railroads and warehouses that he helps to operate,
including the 28-mile C&NC;, have shrunk from about 75 employees to a dozen. Transmark Associates has reduced its staff from 12 to eight.
Wendelin sympathizes with people who don’t like the look of idled rail cars, but he thinks economic recovery is the ultimate answer.
“I’m sure people would rather look at trees and bushes and grass than they would railroad cars,” Wendelin said. “On the other hand, the
railroad has been there a long time — 130 years — and it should not surprise anybody that it’s going to have railroad cars on it.”
New Castle Mayor Jim Small isn’t pleased but said he has little power to get the freight cars moved.
“It divides neighborhoods,” Small said. “It’s a nuisance, (but) they’re train cars sitting on a train track. They’re protected by the
It’s not that he hasn’t tried.
First, Small complained to federal railroad officials that the train cars posed safety hazards, providing places where children might get hurt and
blocking the view at intersections. A federal inspector came and declared the boxcars posed no threat.
Then Small tried another tack, ending the city’s courtesy of mowing and trimming grass along the track.
“If they’d have let the grass get too tall, we’d have cited them,” Small said. “We’d have harassed them until maybe they would rethink
keeping the cars there.”
But railroad officials didn’t bite. They just started doing their own mowing.
If anyone is injured on or around the cars, the railroad company can expect legal action from the city.
“They’ve been warned,” Small said.
An executive at the Association of American Railroads expects the complaints to evaporate — and the freight cars to move — when the economy
A reinvigorated railroad industry has been one of the nation’s economic success stories, and the current recession is simply a storm to be
weathered, said John Gray, the organization’s senior vice president of policy and economics.
“We remain very optimistic about the future of the industry,” Gray said. “It’s certainly healthier than it’s been in some time, even right
now, and there are a lot of things that could be very positive for us going into the future.”