ABOARD A HELICOPTER BETWEEN LEXINGTON AND LOUISVILLE — Rick Corman was making his second pass, maneuvering his helicopter about 300 feet above Interstate 64 so he could get an even better look at a long, red train filled with cargo on an overpass near Frankfort.
On what seemed to be the only cloudless day in all of April, the train gleamed under the shimmering sun.
Corman, founder and owner of the Nicholasville-based R.J. Corman Railroad Group, liked what he saw.
And he saw everything— from the one car on his company's train that was traveling empty to the one that had graffiti on it (he would instruct that by the next day it be cleaned and repainted) to the Central Kentucky countryside that his short-line trains traverse every day.
But mostly, he saw the track, his trains and a thousand opportunities. On that day, the opportunity was the sand train.
Every year, his big red engines take more than 3,600 open-freight cargo cars filled with natural river sand on a winding tour of some of the most beautiful back country in Kentucky.
To show the train's starting point, he flew west, to land in a wide open spot on Louisville's River Road, along the banks of the Ohio.
Here, sand — which had originally hitchhiked to the river's edge on a glacier a long time ago — had been sucked up by large Nugent Sand Co. vacuums, hauled 85 miles downriver and then separated by grade and loaded onto waiting R.J. Corman/Central Kentucky Line trains. There they would begin their short 80-mile ride east to Lexington.
An hour or so earlier in the morning, that day's trains had left, sailing past Anchorage and Shelbyville, through Bagdad, Frankfort and Midway, and finally stopping in Lexington, in the rail yard near Rupp Arena.
While Corman was talking business with Tom Nugent of Louisville-based Nugent Sand, each car's cargo of 105 tons of sand was being off-loaded onto trucks that would then take a short drive to a concrete or asphalt plant.
In the process, the sand will have taken an old-fashioned mode of transportation on a track that was originally laid 100 years ago and yet might save the 21st-century environment and its roads with a single stroke.
Short lines to the future?
Corman's sand train is a once-a-day local example of something that may be changing the face of American transportation.
Short-line and regional railroads operate and maintain 30 percent of the American rail industry's route mileage, according to its industry association, and account for 9 percent of the industry's freight revenue and 12 percent of railroad employment.
Since federal deregulation in 1980, the number of Class I railroads, like CSX and Northern Pacific, and short lines like Corman's, have exploded, said Michael W. Babcock, a professor at Kansas State University who specializes in transportation economics. Class I's have gained 416 lines since 1980; short lines have gained 320.
Still, two-thirds of short-line trains operate along less than 50 miles of track and only 50 extend beyond 250 miles.
What short lines offer their customers is simple: "They know the shipper on the line so well they can offer extraordinary service. They can send birthday gifts to the wives of their shippers," Babcock said. "Then there's what they offer the state."
Specifically, they offer infrastructure savings.
In Babcock's research, he hypothetically removed all the short-line railroads from Kansas and then diverted all that transportation to the highways. Doing the math, he said, he found that the short-lines are saving his state "$58 million in road maintenance costs a year, in perpetuity."
No similar study has been done in Kentucky.
Triple a truck's capacity
In addition to sand, Corman's short-line railroads carry peanuts, aluminum ingots, alcohol, paper, plastic, fertilizer, limestone, scrap paper, brick, corn syrup and oil.
Across the nation, short-line railroads handle a quarter of all freight, although they often are carrying freight to a larger carrier to transport longer distances. Each rail car can carry up to 125 tons, triple the capacity of a truck.
That translates into a good amount of fuel efficiency.
In tests done by the U.S. Department of Transportation, the European Union, the National Atlas of the United States and numerous other governmental associations, railroad transportation has been shown to be about three to four times as fuel efficient as truck transportation.
In test after test done by Corman's own company, "it takes 1 quart of diesel fuel to ship a ton of sand by locomotive," he said. "If that same ton of sand took a truck, it would eat 2 gallons of gas.''
That matters to Tom Nugent, president of Nugent Sand.
Nugent Sand Co. takes a million tons of sand out of the Ohio River each year. Some 400,000 to 600,000 tons of that has been moved by R.J. Corman into the Lexington and surrounding markets each year since the two companies partnered in 2005.
"In our industry," Nugent said, "it's common for transportation costs to outweigh the cost of the commodity. Doing business this way cuts our costs considerably and makes us more competitive."
Nugent said that the transportation agreement he made with R.J. Corman in 2005 has been "absolutely essential" to the health of his business since the economic downturn in 2008, when housing starts — and the need for concrete and asphalt — slowed considerably.
The math adds up
Rick Corman had landed the helicopter at Nugent Sand on the River Road facility to do some business. Walking near the sand and about 100 feet from the cold and windswept Ohio River, he was doing the math and having someone check it with a calculator.
Yes, he nodded, that was more than 17,424 trucks that did not haul sand between Louisville and Lexington last year because his short-line railroad did the work instead.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that for every ton-mile, a typical truck will emit roughly three times the nitrogen oxides and particulates spewed by a locomotive. Other studies suggest trucks emit six to 12 times as many pollutants per ton-mile as do railroads. Railroads, the EPA has said, have a clear advantage in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.
In a recent study analyzing the viability of using rail to carry 2 million bales of cotton from a production hub in Lubbock, Texas, to an interim transportation destination in Dallas-Fort Worth, researchers found an estimated reduction of 42 to 47 percent in carbon dioxide emissions compared to those emitted by trucks.
The study, headed by Stephen Fuller at Texas A&M's University Transportation Center for Mobility, also estimated highway traffic into the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex would be reduced by 13,800 to 16,700 trucks per year with the introduction of a west Texas rail line.
Another run is in the can
Also on hand at the River Road facility, Fred Mudge, the chairman of the R.J. Corman Railroad Group, watched the sand being graded and sorted. Rick Corman credits him for making the sand train happen in 2005.
"You know," Mudge said, "we also run up to Russellville."
He was referring to a Berea-to-Louisville-to-Bowling Green run by the Central Kentucky Line with a small CSX switch in the middle. It takes huge sheets of aluminum ingot from one part of Kentucky so it is able to become cans in another.
That line runs 25 to 30 cars every other day to make sure that the ingot gets to Logan Aluminum in Russellville so that the plant there can recycle it into 45 percent of the country's repurposed aluminum cans.
"The transportation economics are the same," Mudge said. "What makes sense here makes sense there."