Short line Winchester & Western grows through pandemic under OmniTRAX ownership

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Collaboration with shippers, operational changes allow railroad to increase traffic during year when industry as a whole lost volume

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — Winchester & Western, the 100-mile short line with trackage in Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, and New Jersey, was able to grow last year despite the pandemic.

Traffic on the railroad, which short line holding company OmniTRAX acquired in September 2019, was up a shade over 9% last year. That was below railroad executives’ projections, which of course did not include a pandemic wreaking havoc on the economy. But it was well above national carload volume, which declined more than 12% last year, according to the Association of American Railroads.

How did Winchester & Western pull off such a feat?

OmniTRAX executives say the growth came from working closely with shippers, making operational changes that improved service, bringing more technology and sophistication to customer service, and joining forces with local economic development officials to identify and promote rail-served sites.

“We have pretty high expectations,” says Peter Touesnard, chief commercial officer for OmniTRAX. “We probably see another 30% growth on this railroad … over the next three to four years.”

OmniTRAX expects Winchester & Western to handle 20,000 cars this year, up from around 17,500 last year and from 16,000 when the railroad was acquired.

Much of the growth forecast hinges on OmniTRAX’s Rail Ready program, which aims to convert lineside properties into rail-served facilities. Projects range from simply rehabbing a dormant spur track and repurposing it as a transload center to identifying greenfield sites that can be developed into new customer facilities.

Clorox executives have said proximity to the Winchester & Western was among the reasons it selected Berkeley County, W.Va., as the site of a new $150 million facility that is set to open in 2022.

When OmniTRAX purchased the Winchester & Western, executives met with all customers and asked what the railroad could do to provide additional service, including car storage and more frequent switching, Touesnard says.

The railroad also focused on major customers whose traffic volume drives service design, says John Bradley, OmniTRAX vice president of operations.

Under previous owner Covia Holdings, a minerals and materials producer, W&W’s operations varied from day to day and were driven by pen, paper, and phone calls with customers. Now daily operations are based on interchanges with Norfolk Southern and CSX Transportation, making the cars available to customers without intermediate switching, and cycling cars back to the Class I systems as quickly as possible, Bradley says.

“It’s a more disciplined plan than what the railroad was running before,” Bradley says, noting that OmniTRAX introduced a suite of online tools and plugged W&W into its network operations center that’s staffed around the clock.

Winchester & Western customers’ freight is now being spotted or pulled within hours of when promised, instead of within days, and transit time has been cut by a day or more.

The railroad’s connections with both NS and CSX provide customers with competitive and geographic options and helps the short line better compete with the highway. “Truckers have that built in,” Touesnard says.

OmniTRAX also brought its Rail Made Easy program to the Winchester & Western. It ties together rail service, logistics, and industrial development teams to bring former customers back to the railroad. Also a Rail Made Easy focus: Working with existing customers to better understand how the short line can become more deeply integrated into the shipper or receiver’s supply chain.

The railroad’s 2020 growth came from converting some of its existing customers’ highway business to rail. Procter & Gamble ramped up production at its W&W-served plant in Berkeley County, W.Va., and the railroad set up a temporary transload operation to help keep the plant supplied with raw materials after Gulf Coast hurricanes in the fall disrupted the supply chain.