Look around at some of the largest employers in the Lowcountry – Nucor Steel, KapStone Paper, Ingevity, BP Chemical and the Volvo plant now in development – what do they have in common? They need to transport their product to the rest of the country and receive raw materials from outside the region. For that, they require a key player in the state’s economic vitality: rail.
Rail tracks crisscross America, moving freight in a cost-effective and environmentally-friendly way. One intermodal train carries as much cargo as 280 trucks at a fraction of the emissions and without adding a single vehicle to crowded highways. But major rail lines, like CSX and Norfolk Southern, don’t typically build railroad tracks up to a plant’s back door.
“Their core competency is to move long trains long distances,” said Jeff McWhorter, president and CEO of Palmetto Railways. “They don’t routinely invest in every rail project that comes down the road.”
That’s where Palmetto Railways comes in.
Established by the state in 1969 to promote the economic vitality of South Carolina, Palmetto Railways connects industry in South Carolina to the U.S. rail system, providing access to national markets. For example, when sedans begin rolling off the assembly line at Volvo’s Ridgeville plant, they will roll into railroad cars that hold 10 or 15 cars at a time, for a 20-mile journey on Palmetto Railway tracks to an interchange at Cross, South Carolina. Only there will one of the large rail lines pick them up and transport them across the country.
For BMWs manufactured in Greer, the opposite happens. Automobiles headed to the Port of Charleston for overseas markets end their journey on Palmetto Railway lines that run right into the port.
Indeed, the railroad and the port are two fingers of the same economic development glove in South Carolina. Many of the manufacturers that have recently located here cited the critical importance of the ports and rail to transport their goods to market. Rail moves 22 percent of the cargo that comes into and out of the ports.
A project to deepen the Charleston harbor to 52 feet to accommodate the larger ships now passing through the Panama Canal, combined with construction of a new marine container terminal in the old Navy Base in North Charleston, are projected to increase port traffic over the next decade. The Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce forecasts the port will ship roughly 15 percent more cargo in just the next two years.
That has prompted Palmetto Railways to build a railyard on the Navy Base. Working with the City of North Charleston, local neighborhood groups and historic preservation advocates to win approval for the project, Palmetto Railways plans to connect the new port to existing railway infrastructure when it opens around the third quarter of 2019. “People are very excited that we’re averting the need for more trucks on the roads,” says McWhorter.
As Bobby Hitt, S.C, Secretary of Commerce, said, “The ability to efficiently move goods to world markets is essential to maintaining our state’s competitiveness, nationally and globally.”