Over the last several weeks, there has been new discussion about two of Kentucky’s oldest forms of transportation: rivers and railroads.
First, the General Assembly’s Budget Review Subcommittee on Transportation dedicated part of its July meeting to learning more about the central role Kentucky plays when it comes to barge traffic.
We have dozens of riverports, but most are privately owned. Seven are public, however, and five others like them are being developed. According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the state’s riverports handled about 95 million tons of freight in 2012, which put us seventh nationally and the only one among the leaders not along the coasts or adjacent to the Great Lakes.
Kentucky’s sizable role in this industry isn’t too surprising, since we’re bordered on three sides by rivers and nearly half of Kentucky’s county seats – 51 out of 120 – were founded alongside a navigable waterway.
In one sense, river traffic is little different than it was a century ago, but the scale has certainly changed. One large barge, for example, can now carry the equivalent of two 100-car trains.
Our railroads, meanwhile, have also undergone significant change, as we can see in a draft report the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet released last week on the industry.
The Kentucky Statewide Rail Plan is a follow-up to the last one finalized in 2002 and the original completed in the late 1970s. It contains a wealth of information about the industry and what we can expect in the years ahead.
Next year will mark the 185th anniversary of railroads in Kentucky. The first was built out of Lexington, which needed a better way to compete with the river towns of Louisville and Cincinnati, but the number of railway miles really took off after the Civil War, when the state’s total tripled between 1870 and 1900. The highpoint arrived in 1930s, when we had 5,000 miles criss-crossing the state.
That number has declined significantly since then to about 2,800 miles, but that hasn’t diminished their importance, both here and across the country. We’re eleventh among the states when it comes to how much we send by rail, a figure that reached 267.5 million tons in 2011. In a further breakdown, we’re third in coal shipments and fifth in iron and steel.
According to the Transportation Cabinet’s report, we send almost twice as much by train to other states as they send to us. Interestingly, coal dominates both in-bound and out-bound travel, which helps explain why Kentucky gets more tonnage from Wyoming than any other state and Georgia is the leading destination for cargo originating here. Only a small percentage of railway shipments starts and stops within our borders.
Other aspects of the cabinet’s report center on railway safety, passenger service and Rails to Trails programs.
Nationally, we have seen a 50 percent decline in accidents at railway crossings over the last 20 years. Kentucky experienced a similar trend, with accidents dropping from 80 in 1994 to 49 last year. Since 2010, the number of injuries at these crossing has held steady, but the number of fatalities over that timeframe has dropped from 10 a year to five. The General Assembly has budgeted several million dollars in recent years to increase public safety at these crossings.
Given the rise of travel by car over the last six to seven decades, it’s understandable that passenger service by train has dropped significantly from a historical perspective, although ridership during the last decade has gone up more by more than half, from about 7,000 passengers in 2005 to 11,000 in 2013.
Amtrak serves four of our communities: Ashland, South Shore, Maysville and Fulton. That far western Kentucky town, by the way, was once a major stopping point for freight traveling from New Orleans to Chicago because it had the only ice house along the way. Interestingly, nearly three out of four bananas consumed in the country once funneled through the community, which now has an annual festival dedicated to the fruit.
There are several tourist-oriented rail lines still in operation – such as Big South Fork Scenic Railway in McCreary County – and there have been several studies over the years about adding light rail between cities here in Kentucky to reduce traffic. I am a big believer that, long-term, this could be a major boost for Eastern Kentucky, increasing access to jobs.
While the number of rail lines has declined, our country has found a way to turn some of these abandoned spaces into something useful again. Kentucky has 75 miles of rails-to-trails recreational sites, but nearly 300 more miles are in development. That would put us well ahead of such states as Tennessee, but still behind states like Ohio, which has more than 900 miles of these trails, and Illinois, which has 840.
There is much more information in the cabinet’s report, and the cabinet is looking for public input between now and Sept. 16th. If you’d like to learn more, visit the cabinet’s website at http://transportation.ky.gov/railroads/.