Power plant’s closure means coal trains disappearing

September 3, 2021

No business likes losing one of its big customers. But that appears to be what will happen to Delmarva Central Railroad when NRG closes its Indian River power plant in 2022. The mega-energy company announced those plans recently.

“It’s a melancholy situation,” said Cliff Grunstra, chief marketing officer for Delmarva Central’s parent company, Carload Express.

“It’s sad for us to see a customer leave, especially one that has been using the railroad to haul coal for its plant since the 1950s. But we understand that folks have to make business decisions to make things work for them.”

Delmarva Central locomotives haul thousands of tons of coal each year to the plant on Burton Island in Indian River. After hooking up around New Castle with the cars that come out of Pennsylvania coal mines, Delmarva Central pulls the loads down the spine of the Delmarva Peninsula. The trains rumble through the Delaware countryside, engineers blowing their whistles, passing through Dover, Harrington, Georgetown and Millsboro, drivers at flashing-lighted intersections looking anxiously for the last car to come into sight.

“Their unit trains of coal are the largest contiguous trains that we run on the peninsula,” said Grunstra. A unit train is one dedicated entirely to a single category of freight, such as coal. The unit trains serving the Indian River power plant usually include locomotives and 105 carloads of coal. Grunstra said the annual volume of coal shipped to Indian River varies depending on the amount of power the plant is generating. “The plant is currently refilling inventory; they must be generating this summer.”

I speculated:  “Maybe it’s the heat and the high demand for electricity for air conditioning.”

“Perhaps” said Grunstra.

NRG isn’t the only customer that contracts with Delmarva Central for unit trains. Poultry firms buy unit trainloads of corn and other grain products for growers to feed their chickens. Delmarva Central pulls some of those trains to a loop track north of Seaford for Allen Harim where the cars are offloaded into giant concrete grain bins before returning to Ohio and other Midwestern states for more loads to be brought east. Other railcars go to Mountaire facilities in Frankford and Princess Anne.

Although Delmarva farmers grow millions of bushels of corn and soybeans each year, those are still not enough to feed the hundreds of millions of chickens raised here.

As large as the demand has been for feed and coal trains, they’re nonetheless not Delmarva Central’s biggest customer in terms of total volume of freight brought annually onto the peninsula. That distinction, said Grunstra, goes to aggregate stone brought out of Pennsylvania for highway and other construction. Grunstra said H&K Group’s Dagsboro Stone Depot brings in unit trains of about 100 cars to its Dagsboro offloading and distribution facility. The weight volume of that stone – for asphalt and other purposes – is many times the weight volume of coal and grain, making it the single-largest category of freight carried by Delmarva Central.

‘The demand for aggregate [chips, pebbles and crushed stone] is strong,” said Grunstra. “DelDOT projects and housing developments all use lots of stone. Wherever you see fields turning into new communities, you’re seeing demand for aggregate. The Delmarva Peninsula is just a big flat, sandy pancake with no stone to work with. There will always be a need to bring in aggregate.”

H&K Group mines its aggregate out of quarries near Birdsboro, Pa.

Residential, commercial and poultry consumers also use propane delivered by Delmarva Central to rail terminals throughout the Eastern Shore. DCR also brings in lumber and other construction supplies. The railroad in recent years partnered with DelDOT to improve the Ellendale-to-Milton and Georgetown-to-Harbeson lines, which are owned by DelDOT but operated by Delmarva Central.

So while Grunstra is sad Delmarva Central is losing NRG’s Indian River power plant as a rail customer, he said business is still strong – and growing – for its other segments.

“We market hard, we’re investing millions in the railroad, and we always strive to provide best-in-class service.” He thinks that will continue to be a winning formula for Delmarva Central Railroad and its 188 miles of track on Delmarva that make it the peninsula's largest railroad.


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