Liz McCormick Published

Proponents Say Railroad Deal Could Boost W.Va.'s Economy, Attract Jobs To Eastern Panhandle

One of seven locomotives acquired by OmniTRAX after it purchased the Winchester & Western Railroad in September. Additionally, OmniTRAX acquired 470 railcars.

Colorado-based OmniTRAX, a freight-only transportation company that links several railroads from coast to coast in the U.S., purchased the Winchester & Western Railroad for $105 million in September. 

The railroad runs through part of West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle, and the purchase is expected to improve West Virginia’s economy by attracting more businesses to the Eastern Panhandle.

The Winchester & Western Railroad has been around since 1916. It stretches from southern New Jersey, through Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle, covering about 100 miles. 

Winchester & Western Railroad employee and Berkeley County native Eddie McKee said the interchange at Corning Way in Martinsburg is critical to the operation of the Winchester & Western.

“This is just about the center of the railroad, and the majority of our customers is right in this area, within five miles,” McKee said.

Two of those customers are the Argos cement plant and Procter & Gamble, both in Martinsburg.

McKee thinks OmniTRAX will increase the customer-base for the Winchester & Western Railroad, reaching more industrial companies that will rely on their rail service.

“Basically, it’s another company that we didn’t have, like Procter & Gamble. I mean, Procter & Gamble come here, brand new, OmniTRAX is brand new to West Virginia. So, it’s a win-win for West Virginia. They have so many resources that it’s great,” he said.

Part of the Winchester & Western Railroad at Corning Way in Martinsburg.

Credit Liz McCormick / West Virginia Public Broadcasting
West Virginia Public Broadcasting
Part of the Winchester & Western Railroad at Corning Way in Martinsburg.

OmniTRAX is headquartered in Denver and owns 23 railroads all over the U.S. and in parts of Canada. It also owns more than 500 short line and regional railroads. About 350 industrial customers like P&G, steel companies, and oil and natural gas companies use those railroads to ship their goods. 

But the Winchester & Western Railroad is only their second line in the northeast.

“For OmniTRAX, it gets us a dot on the map in a market that we’ve been interested in for a very long time,” Ean Johnson, Vice President of Economic Development at OmniTRAX, said in an interview via Skype.

Johnson said a major benefit in purchasing Winchester & Western is the rail’s proximity to more than 100 million people within a day’s drive. He said that’s a huge draw for potential manufacturing companies looking for a new place to set up shop.

“It’s providing access to market, which then allows our customers to make those strategic decisions to locate their facilities,” he said.

And those facilities that look to locate near the Winchester & Western Railroad will help to diversify West Virginia’s economy, bringing more jobs to the Eastern Panhandle area, Johnson said. 

“Oftentimes those jobs are well-paying manufacturing jobs that stick around communities for a very long time.”

The Winchester & Western Railroad is considered a short line, and it’s made up of two divisions. The first is the Virginia Division. It has 53 miles of track running through the Shenandoah Valley and moves about 12,500 carloads per year. The second is the New Jersey Division. It has 47 miles and moves 8,500 carloads per year.

The New Jersey Division interconnects with the Winchester & Western Railroad in Martinsburg. Both divisions have connections to CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern – two major railroads called Class 1s.

The purchase of the Winchester & Western gave OmniTRAX a total of 470 railcars and seven locomotives to add to their overall operation, and the company also picked up about 60 employees through the Winchester & Western.

Berkeley County officials are also glad to see the purchase.

Sandy Hamilton, executive director of the Berkeley County Development Authority, said that for years the Winchester & Western Railroad was underutilized, but she thinks OmniTRAX will help the railroad and the communities around it grow.

“We have a gem here. We have a great line that would cost billions of dollars to replicate it,” she said.

Hamilton notes OmniTRAX will bring in new capital, resources, and support to the railroad, and she believes the impact will filter out throughout West Virginia.

“They have some exciting ideas, they have exciting connections, and I think it’ll be someone good that we can partner with to market.”

But in terms of actual dollar amount, the total economic impact for the community is yet to be determined.