- By Nick May, Photography by Michael Booini
There exists an alternate view to roads and highways; a frontier that is only ever traversed by slow-crawling freight cars, winding their way through those wild, pastoral corridors between the least and greatest of American cities. This year marks the 111th anniversary of one such railway in Panama City, The Bay Line, a short line railroad that spans from the Port of Panama City and the WestRock Mill northward to Abbeville, Alabama and eastward to Hilton, Georgia. It is one of the area’s oldest industries, providing a year-after-year snapshot of the larger national railroad network. If the railroad in Panama City is an indicator, then the greater American railroad shows no signs of slowing any time soon.
Today, the Federal Railroad Administration oversees a state-of-the-art system. The FRA claims the nation’s railroads to be one of the most “dynamic freight systems in the world…” boasting a $60 billion-dollar value, 140,000 miles of track and 221,000 jobs. According to the FRA, the freight rail system ships close to 40 tons of freight per person living in the U.S. each year, with 91% of that being bulk commodities (such as chemicals, minerals and food). The other nine percent are Amazon.com purchases. Only joking. The FRA does say, however, that most items we use daily will touch the rail system at least once before arriving in our hands.*
Ken Dziwulski, Vice President of Transportation for the Southern Region railroads at Genesee & Wyoming (the Bay Line’s parent company), says, on average, the Bay Line operates more than 25 trains a week, moving freight in and out of the cities of Panama City, Florida and Dothan, Alabama. Dziwulski oversees 12 railroads in the Southeast, including the Bay Line, and states that even though there are no plans to change or add to the 156-mile footprint of the Bay Line, the company does see opportunities for different kinds of growth in the area.
“Where we see growth opportunities in Florida, we see them in the Bay Line railroad,” Dziwulski says. “We’ve partnered heavily with the Port of Panama City, opening what we call a ‘Choice Terminal’ about 15 miles north of our yard on Highway 231, which allows rail traffic to come in and be transferred to trucks. Those trucks can then be sent to the Port for distribution or put containers to be shipped offshore. We can also have something come from overseas into the Port of Panama City and be trucked to this terminal to then enter the rail network for distribution across the Southeast. That was just completed the first of October.”
For a deeper look into how the railway operates today in Bay County, it is important to understand how the industry connects Panama City and surrounding areas to the rest of the country. Some of the Bay Line’s customers in Panama City, including WestRock, Enviva, and Berg Pipe, are partners who, Dziwulski says, the Bay Line helps tie directly to the national rail network. “We, as a short line [not a larger Class
1 railroad, like CSX], are an integral partner with our customers, trying to provide service where they need it, exactly how they need it.”
On a local level, Rob Anderson, the Bay Line’s General Manager, handles the part of the railroad that citizens of Bay County see every day. Perhaps on their way to work. “We often hear from people who get stuck at train crossings,” he says, “and the thing I want to tell them is that every one of our railcars is equal to about three or four standard truckloads. Now imagine what it would be like if there were that many more trucks on Highway 231…” I asked about the types of cars that have been used throughout the years and how they compare to today’s cars. “Historically, the Bay Line has used your standard boxcars, open top containers,and tanks. Over the years, that’s changed, with new technology, new EPA standards and new types of more efficient/lighter cars. Some of the cars we still use are close to 40 years old now.”
The individual railcars parked at the port or moving along Highway 231 are often owned by third parties. “Some companies lease them to different railroads or customers,” says Anderson. “Sometimes a company will own their own fleet. Individual railroads will have some of their own, as well. The Bay Line owns and leases its cars.” How about where those cars get their power? “Well, the railcar itself doesn’t have a generated power system. It’s a free rolling car with its own brake system, being pulled by a diesel locomotive.”
Anderson says the Bay Line alone employs close to 70 full-time workers who handle everything from engineering track structures to maintaining the track, inspecting signals and crossings, manning the locomotive maintenance and rebuilding shop, all the way to the transportation department, which is responsible for all switching and movement on the Bay Line. At the railroad’s two main terminals in Dothan and Panama City, customers are serviced, as trains bring in commodities for interchange to larger railroads (like CSX) or loaded onto ships. The terminals also provide a place to switch out cars, deliver loads or “empties” to customers, as well as numerous other services.
And what about the passenger cars that transported the people of Bay County more than 100 years ago? “Many of them have been sold or donated to museums. Others were bought by individuals for personal property,” says Anderson. I asked Dziwulski if there were plans to bring passenger trains back to the area, as there were in the early days of the Bay Line. Unfortunately, his answer was “Probably not…” considering the logistics and lack of need for such an undertaking. “The Bay Line track is a 30-mile-perhour track,” Dziwulski says. “A high-speed excursion from Dothan, Alabama to Panama City Beach, for example, wouldn’t exactly make sense…”
While the Bay Line seems to have no immediate plans for passenger travel, it should be noted that The Gulf Coast Rail Service Working Group (that includes members of Amtrak, CSX), and the West Florida Regional Planning Council has been looking into restoring passenger service between New Orleans, Louisiana and Orlando, Florida since 2015.**
Human transport aside, Anderson and Dziwulski agree the Bay Line provides an invaluable service to the economy of Panama City and surrounding areas. Not only is rail cheaper, it’s more efficient than the alternatives (imagine three times as many trucks blocking your morning commute). The existence of the Bay Line has influenced Bay County’s industrial infrastructure for the last 111 years and makes a vital difference for many businesses that make their home here. It continues to be what makes Panama City a commercial competitor in the global economic arena.
*fra.dot.gov – Freight Rail Today, “The Freight Rail Network”
**West Florida Regional Planning Council, “Restoration of Gulf Coast Passenger Rail”
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