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Norfolk Southern gets on board Charleston port rail plan

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Palmetto Railways intermodal facility at Navy Base (copy)

A rendering shows the train and cargo-transfer hub that Palmetto Railways plans to build on the former Navy base in North Charleston. Rivals Norfolk Southern and CSX Corp. will provide the rail service. Provided/Palmetto Railways

Once reluctant to back plans for a rail yard that will take shipping containers from the waterfront and put them on trains, Norfolk Southern is now one of the proposal's biggest backers.

"We've got to get on-dock rail up and moving," Jeff Heller, the company's vice president of intermodal and automotive, said of the $300 million cargo hub planned for North Charleston. "Based on recent discussions, I'm very optimistic."

That hasn't always been the case for Norfolk Southern, which would share the state-owned site with competitor CSX Corp.

Three years ago, Norfolk Southern told the Army Corps of Engineers that it couldn't support the project because the dual north and south entrances would not allow "fair, equal and unfettered access" for both carriers.

Those concerns have been addressed — Norfolk Southern and CSX will share a southern entrance — and Heller said during last week's S.C. International Trade Conference that the project is the final piece of the Port of Charleston's strategy to boost the amount of cargo moved by rail. That figure currently is between 20 percent and 25 percent.

"It will take us from being a big success to being a really big success," Heller said.

The rail yard, officially known as the Navy Base Intermodal Container Transfer Facility, would be owned and operated by Charleston-based Palmetto Railways, a short-line hauler and a division of the S.C. Commerce Department. It would be linked to the State Ports Authority's new Leatherman Terminal by a private road, which will keep cargo moving between the two yards off public roads.

Charleston railroad seeks outside help for federal funding of Navy base, Volvo projects

Terminals are the biggest cost for railroads looking to open new inland routes for seaports, and Heller said South Carolina's willingness to invest public money in such facilities gives it an advantage over the numerous communities that approach him each year for new service.

That was the case in Greer, where the state spent $51 million to build an inland port linking BMW's plant in Spartanburg County, among other businesses in the area, with Charleston's port. Norfolk Southern, which services the Greer site, paid about $7 million of the cost of the project.

The Upstate inland port, now in its sixth year of operation, handled a record 143,204 containers in fiscal 2019, up nearly 22 percent from the previous 12 months.

The North Charleston rail yard — to be built south of Cosgrove Avenue at the former Navy base — is scheduled to open at about the same time as the first phase of the Leatherman Terminal, in early 2021. Palmetto Railways is seeking federal funding for at least part of the project.

Boeing business jet

The interior of one of Boeing's business jets. The aerospace giant announced last week it sold two 787-9 Dreamliners outfitted as business jets to an undisclosed buyer. Provided/Boeing Co.

Business class

Boeing Co. says it recently sold a pair of 787-9 Dreamliner jets configured for private business use, but it isn't saying who purchased them.

The long-haul business jets are designed to carry globe-trotting VIPs and include amenities such as a double bed, shower, conference rooms and dining area. The two planes carry a list price of $564 million. Boeing says it isn't disclosing the buyer at the customer's request.

The 787 business jet "offers our most discerning customers the ability to travel in ultimate comfort and fly directly to just about any city on earth," said Ihssane Mounir, Boeing's senior vice president of commercial sales and marketing. To date, Boeing has sold 16 of the wide-body business jets.

Boeing builds its Dreamliner planes in North Charleston and at a sister plant in Everett, Wash.

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Reach David Wren at 843-937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_