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More Freight Trains A Comin’ – And That’s Good for the Lehigh Valley

By Don Cunningham on March 16, 2015

This column, written by LVEDC President and CEO Don Cunningham, originally appeared in Lehigh Valley Business on March 16, 2015.

Don Cunningham

Don Cunningham

I can remember as a kid being in love with trains.

My grandfather was a machinist, a tinkerer and a film buff. He collected old movies and rebuilt old movie projectors. His third floor attic was a magical place. The walls were covered with old movie posters. He had a theater-sized movie projector in the middle of the room, a big projection screen and a room full of film canisters.

On Saturday afternoons he’d pull the shades. He was the projectionist; me, the entire audience. Decades before Netflix was a word I could order up whatever I wanted.

I always started with the same reel: Trains. It was not narrated, just shot after shot of trains of every size, every railroad, bellowing coal smoke and twisting and turning across railroad bridges, up mountains and across prairies.

And best of all, it was loud. My grandfather was super cool. Along with film, he was into sound and volume. I’m pretty certain that attic was where surround sound started. Speakers were wired high on every wall. The projector ran first through an amped-up stereo receiver. The train film rattled the walls.

Forty years later, my grandfather is gone. His attic is long cleaned out. But my days still find me thinking of trains. Today, however, in the language of economic development, we call it rail, freight rail to be precise. I no longer focus on the look of locomotives, or which ones make the louder sounds or blast thicker clouds of smoke. Today, it’s all about what they do: move products, goods and raw materials.

The one thing that remains the same as those Saturday afternoons in my grandparent’s old house in Bethlehem is the thought of how to get more trains running. Much of our economic growth today in the Lehigh Valley is based upon our location. We are the perfect location from which to serve the huge consumer and business market of the northeastern United States. About one-third of all U.S. consumers are within a day’s drive of the Lehigh Valley. In addition, we have available land, an available workforce, water and wastewater supplies and good infrastructure, a fancy word for roads, bridges and, yes, rail lines.

The Internet and technology created e-commerce, a fancy word for buying goods and products on-line instead of going to the store. Retail sales on the Internet grow an average of 20 percent a year. Sales in stores grow at about 1 to 2 percent. This leads to a lot more products being moved around, which has led to an entire new industry. The Lehigh Valley is in the middle of it, adding 5,000 jobs in the last four years.

It is simply a fact that the Lehigh Valley is and will be a center for logistics, moving goods to market. The question is how will we get them in and out. Today, 90 percent of those goods move by truck and 10 percent by rail. The national average is 85-15, truck to rail.

We have an opportunity to expand freight rail access in the Lehigh Valley. We have great rail service from Norfolk Southern. A quality Intermodal rail terminal in south Bethlehem, and a unique opportunity to increase train volume and reduce truck traffic from our highways. It will take some work, some planning and some money. Many organizations are hard at work to make it happen.

In my youth, train films meant an exciting Saturday afternoon. Today, freight rail means increasing jobs, reducing road congestion and creating an incentive for manufacturers to make products here, close to their customers.

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