The Crescent Corridor

The Crescent Corridor is an over $2.5 billion rail infrastructure improvement project operated by the Norfolk Southern Railway (NS). The corridor, under development since 2008, consists of a 2,500-mile network of existing rail lines that extends from New Jersey to Memphis and on to New Orleans (see Figure 37). Corridor projects include straightening curves, adding signals, and building new track and rail terminals. NS also partnered with the states of Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Alabama, and Mississippi to improve the system and develop regional intermodal freight distribution centers (Norfolk Southern 2009).

Figure 37

According to Norfolk Southern, the Crescent Corridor’s benefits and anticipated impacts include (Norfolk Southern 2014):

  • Creating nearly 123,000 jobs across the rail network by 2030;
  • Creating new terminal facilities in Birmingham, AL., Memphis, TN., Charlotte, N.C., and Greencastle, PA;
  • Saving more than $575 million in traffic congestion annually;
  • Reducing 1.9 million tons of carbon dioxide annually;
  • Saving more than 169 million gallons of fuel annually; and
  • Removing more than 1.3 million long-haul truckloads of activity from roadways on an annual basis.

Project Policies, Programs and Motivations

In an interview with “BizNS,” Norfolk Southern’s newsletter, Mike McClellan, Vice President of Automotive and Intermodal Marketing, stated the motivation behind establishing and expanding the Crescent Corridor came after the company learned that shippers and domestic channel partners were looking for a faster network for domestic intermodal traffic to move between the Northeast and the Southeast along Interstate 81 and Interstate 85 in Virginia to North Carolina.

“Unlike the Heartland Corridor, which primarily supports our international business, the Crescent Corridor is focused on our domestic business. We worked with our intermodal customers, and especially our domestic intermodal partners, to determine where the best opportunities to convert highway freight to NS would be,” said McClellan. “This particular corridor provides opportunities for us to compete with single-driver, over-the-road truck shipments of more than 550 miles, in partnership with our key domestic service providers (Norfolk Southern 2009).”

NS estimates that the average intermodal train can haul the equivalent of 280 truckloads and can transport a ton of freight 436 miles on just one gallon of fuel. This mode shift potential, combined with the fuel savings and associated reductions in carbon emissions, made the Crescent Corridor project an ideal candidate for public-private partnerships (Norfolk Southern 2009, Norfolk Southern 2013).

To kick-start the project, the Commonwealth of Virginia committed $45 million to the corridor and work began in 2008.  Projects include a branch line between Manassas and Front Royal, VA, signals, the addition of three full-size passing tracks, and a five-mile segment of double track. NS matched the state funds (VDOT 2010).  In 2010, the Crescent Corridor Intermodal Freight Project received a $105 million American Recovery & Reinvestment Act TIGER grant, which included $52.5 million to construct the Memphis Regional Intermodal Facility (Federal Highway Administration 2014).

Lessons learned

The motivations for this project or policy encompass a variety of goals for which mode shift represents an overall proxy. These goals include reductions in fuel use and emissions, easing of congestion, improvements in safety, increases in carrier efficiencies and concurrent reductions in shipper costs, and positive contributions to economic development. Three distinct areas of lessons learned include:

  • How and why did mode shift occur?
  • How did public policy influence this outcome?
  • How ca this policy or program be transferred or adapted to other situations or locations?

The ability of the Crescent Corridor to cause mode shift is a direct function of the planned strategy to target lanes and make investments to compete with long-haul trucking. NS purchased data on truck movements for city pairs, and examined their ability to provide comparable service to trucks, in terms of speed and reliability, at below market prices. For lanes that NS determined could be competitive, NS worked with shippers to see if they would be interested in intermodal service, and with federal, state and local governments to make the necessary investments in terminals and track infrastructure so that they could offer competitive services (Wilson 2014).

The study team interviewed Mr. Darrell Wilson, Assistant Vice President of Government Relations at Norfolk Southern, to document the influential factors or policies that supported this modal-shift project.  According to Mr. Wilson, the key factor in making the Crescent corridor a reality was the ability to get the different public and private-market actors to understand that the bottom-line benefits to the rail company also provided real economic development and truck diversion opportunities for the public. NS achieved this goal by working with manufacturer and retailer supply chain representatives and shipping companies to identify what goods they move, and how and what could be done to make intermodal transport a viable option. After finding that common thread or common concern, they developed a policy to address it and to incentivize these actors to use intermodal (Wilson 2014) .

Policymakers can seek to expand and transfer the concepts that NS employed in the Crescent Corridor to additional projects and lanes. For example, the NS representatives noted that NS examined a variety of lanes, but only selected the most lucrative. Further investments in terminals and the rail network could allow expansion to additional lanes both inside and outside the Crescent Corridor. He also noted that for the lanes involved in the Crescent Corridor, the new intermodal services have captured 20 percent of the truck VMT, but that the NS goal is 28 percent. In addition, the model of collaboration and cooperation, coupled with the public and private partnership model, also offers promise for other mode shift projects (Wilson 2014).

Epilogue – Recent Developments

The Crescent Corridor is a more than $2.5 billion rail infrastructure project. The Corridor is a 2,500-mile freight rail network that runs through 13 states from the Gulf Coast to the mid-Atlantic. The rail line connects Memphis and New Orleans to New Jersey, and runs parallel to interstate highways I-20, I-40, I-59, I-75, I-76, I-77, I-78, I-81, I-85, and I-95. The project includes the construction and expansion of terminals, the laying of passing routes at the terminals, the straightening of curved routes, and the addition of signals. Construction is underway at various terminal locations and the project sponsors expect full development by 2020. A fleet of 28 trains will operate on the fully developed Crescent Corridor. Each train hauls 280 truckloads of cargo.[1]

A number of new Crescent Corridor intermodal facilities have opened in addition to the five that were operational in 2009. As of 2013, nine intermodal facilities were operational, with an expansion of the Rutherford Pennsylvania facility completed in the fall of 2015. The new facilities ranged in annual lift capacity from 65,000 to 200,000 lifts, expanding capacity by 800,000 lifts per annum.[2] The completed corridor connects eleven intermodal facilities.[3]

Since the Crescent Corridor’s 2012 completion, Norfolk Southern Railway’s intermodal traffic has increased. According to the VP of Intermodal and Automotive, Jeff Heller, “We believe all our growth on Crescent has been truck traffic.”[4]Activity increased to almost 400,000 units in 2015, up from approximately 200,000 in 2010. This was the latest year for which NS provided activity data. Between 2010 and 2015, the compound annual growth rate (CAGR) was 14 percent. Figure 38 provides data on annual intermodal units on the Crescent (and Heartland) Corridors.

Figure 38

As part of planning for the Crescent Corridor, Norfolk Southern conducted its own market research by contacting potential customers. Based on customer feedback about the planned services, NS developed estimates of how many intermodal trucks could be diverted to rail with the planned Crescent Corridor improvements. NS developed separate traffic forecasts for 63 different origin-destination movements between rail hubs from Texas to New Jersey. NS estimated that around 1.3 million intermodal units would be diverted from truck to rail in the year 2012.[5]

The analysis reflected the low share of intermodal shipments for the Origin/Destination Pairs that the designers of the Crescent Corridor sought to serve. Figure 39 provides intermodal and truck market shares for a variety of origin/destination pairs for different NS corridors.  As Figure 39 shows, the corridors that the Crescent was to serve had much lower intermodal shares than pairs served by the other NS corridors.

Figure 39

 Cambridge Systematics (CS) conducted a benefit-cost analysis of the Crescent Corridor. It found that the following long-term public benefits (based on 1.3 million units per year) would accrue annually at full operation:[6]

  • $543 million in shipping savings;
  • $566 million in congestion savings (22.5 million hours of transit time savings);
  • $146 million in safety savings (1,256 fewer heavy truck crashes);
  • $147 million in sustainability savings (162 million gallons of fuel saved; 1.8 million tons of CO2 eliminated); and
  • $261 million in highway maintenance savings (1.263 billion truck VMTs reduced).
  • Benefits to the public in 2013 were estimated at $192,744,822, broken out as follows:
  • State of good repair: $30,412,780;
  • Economic competitiveness: $63,153,951;
  • Livability: $65,732,881;
  • Safety: $16,387,595; and
  • Sustainability: $17,057,613.

The project would also result in a reduction of 196,762,103 vehicle miles. By 2030 the project will create 122,000 jobs.  Benefits would accrue to 15 states along the corridor, ranging from a low of $510 thousand in Delaware to a high of $42.7 million in Virginia. The project will generate revenue of $16 for every $1 of investment between 2011 and 2030, and $25 for every $1 of investment by 2040. Again, the report estimates that the project would take 1.3 million long-haul trucks off congested highways each year.[7]

The company sees technology advances as critical to enhancing operating efficiencies, customer service, and safety. Norfolk Southern was the first railroad to offer a user-friendly mobile app to reduce time spent at intermodal facilities.[8]

Epilogue – Lessons Learned

The major lesson learned from the Crescent Corridor is that the transportation planning community has a lot to learn about mode shift, its causes and effects. There is a need for better tools to predict the effects of mode shift policies and investments. That is not to say that the Crescent Corridor cannot be a success or was not a good investment, but the evidence so far does not support the forecasts.

Other observers have questioned the feasibility of the Crescent Corridor. A group called Rail Solution notes, “Big trucking companies such as Schneider, Swift, and J. B. Hunt have made great use of the domestic intermodal concept, when they find it cheaper to ship their containers by rail than to drive them over the road. But the downside is that this business requires mega-terminals requiring hundreds of acres so they are not easy to construct. The cost and delays associated with moving and transferring containers through these huge terminals are such that railroads need a long haul to amortize these up front outlays. An example from the I-81/I-40 Corridor, which Norfolk Southern calls its “Crescent Corridor”… has annoying limitations. The trains are long and slow and few endpoints are served, so the service is not nimble enough to be truly truck-competitive.”[9]

NS officials have stated that there is potential for more growth through Greencastle, Penn., Hagerstown, Md., Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. In addition, as trucking companies and their drivers face increasing regulation, the potential for moving freight off the highways and onto rail lines continues to grow. For railroads, the challenge in part is to match the delivery commitments and flexibility that trucks offer. “The key is predictable, on-time service.”[10]The Wall Street Journal recently noted, “High demand for trucking companies is driving the cost of shipping up. Revenue per loaded mile was up 19.9 percent last quarter year over year at the largest truckload company in the U.S., and revenues are up across the board. The Cass Truckload Line haul Index measures per-mile pricing and was up 9.8 percent in September 2018 compared to September 2017. Wages are rising for drivers and fuel prices are also up, and consumer goods companies like Procter & Gamble are anticipating trucking costs will rise 25 percent this fiscal year.”[11]


[1] Railway Technology website. https://www.railway-technology.com/projects/crescent-corridor

[2] Norfolk Southern Government Relations, Crescent Corridor Update, Talking Freight PowerPoint Presentation, US DOT, December 21, 2016. Accessed at: www.fhwa.dot.gov/Planning/freight_planning/talking_freight/december_2016/talkingfreight12_21_2016dw.pdf

[3] Railway Technology, “Crescent Freight Corridor.” Accessed at:  https://www.railway-technology.com/projects/crescent-corridor

[4] Deborah R. Huso, Progressive Railroading, “Sustainable growth: Railroads aim to pull more freight off the highway,” June 2016.  Accessed at: https://www.progressiverailroading.com/intermodal/article.aspx?id=48412

[5] Cambridge Systematics, Inc. Feasibility Plan for Maximum Truck to Rail Diversion in Virginia’s I-81 Corridor: Final Report, Prepared for the Commonwealth of Virginia, April 15, 2010.

[6]Norfolk Southern Government Relations. Crescent Corridor Update; December 21st 2016. US DOT Talking Freight.

[7] Abbot, Paul Scott. CSX, NS grow roles in efficiently linking Northeast seaports with inland consumers. AJOT, Issue #623, April 04, 2016. https://www.ajot.com/premium/ajot-csx-ns-grow-roles-in-efficiently-linking-northeast-seaports-with-inlan

[8] Abbot, Paul Scott. Continuing intermodal gains seen by executives of Class I rail firms. AJOT, Issue #674, September 10, 2018. https://www.ajot.com/premium/ajot-continuing-intermodal-gains-seen-by-executives-of-class-i-rail-firms

[9]  David Foster, The Future of Railroad Intermodal Business, Rail Solution, August 23, 2015. Accessed at: http://railsolution.org/2015/08/23/ii-future-railroad-intermodal-business/

[10] Rail News: Intermodal Sustainable growth: Railroads aim to pull more freight off the highway By Deborah R. HusoJune 2016  https://www.progressiverailroading.com/intermodal/article.aspx?id=48412

[11] Jennifer Smith, Trucking Companies Boost Prices Amid Capacity Squeeze, The Wall Street Journal, October 26, 2018.

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