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CSX closure ends more than 100 years of railroad operations in Erwin

Sue Guinn Legg • Updated Oct 15, 2015 at 10:32 PM

ERWIN — The last coal train to leave Erwin rolled slowly out of town just after at 3 p.m. Thursday, less than eight hours after CSX Transportation employees heard the news that rocked all of Unicoi County.

“Its a hard pill to swallow,”  county Mayor Greg Lynch said. “Of course, we heard rumors that something was coming down. But never in my wildest dreams did I imagine they would just shut down and leave town.”

CSX delivered the news of its decision to immediately close Erwin’s 175-acre rail yard and abruptly end the employment of the facility’s 300 workers in a series of meetings with employees conducted at the start of their morning shifts.

The company’s official notification to county leaders came by courier during the lunch hour. But by then, the shockwave of its departure from a town built around railroading had already reverberated across all of East Tennessee.

A statement posted at the company’s web site Thursday morning cited significant declines in the coal industry as the reason for the closure of town’s 135-year-old rail terminal.

CSX security, communications staff and employment specialists from its headquarters in Jacksonville, Fla., remained at the terminal throughout the day, meeting individually with workers who had questions about their severance and the opportunity to bid on jobs at other CSX locations across the country, and fielding questions from community leaders and media outlets from as far away as Knoxville.

About a dozen rail yard shop workers and contractors who for decades have provided services and supplies to the terminal remained on site through the afternoon, shutting down the shops and building the last trains of railcars to be assembled in the yard. Most of 300 employees impacted by the closure left the facility immediately after the 7:30 a.m. employee meeting.

Despite the workers’ efforts to remain positive, the mood was grim among the employees who remained outside the eerily quiet terminal building, and in downtown Erwin as well. Few of the workers would talk to the media. and those who spoke with the Johnson City Press chose not to give their names.

“It’s just the nature of the business, the nature of the industry,” said an 18-year employee of CSX who chalked up Thursday’s closure as his third layoff. “It’s technology. Before people burned coal they burned wood and shipped it. You got to look at it optimistically. Gloom and doom won’t get you anywhere.”

A yard taxi driver employed for many years in Erwin by a company contracted by CSX to deliver workers to trains across the region said he expected to lose his job as well. “It’s going to impact a lot of contractors also,” he said. “There are companies who deliver ice and bottled water for the trains here every day. Diesel fuel suppliers. All sorts of different services. It’s widespread.”

Tish Oldham, director of Unicoi County Joint Economic Development Board, came to the terminal Thursday to learn what she could about the company’s plans for rail service to industries in the county that depend on it, and was assured by CSX that service will continue. 

“Its going to have a regional impact not just in the town and county,” she said. “There’s a percentage of people who drive here from Johnson City and other places to work at CSX. And more than just here, the railroad has been an important part of the economy of this region for 100 years. It’s a regional economic issue.

“I talked to them today about the line still being available to manufacturers and my understanding is the rail line will be available.”

At this time, Oldham said the primary concern is for the loss of CSX jobs by “a set of very skilled workers and figuring out how those skills can be used in other segments of the economy.

”These are people who know how to build things, design things and make things happen,“ she said.

The CSX property, which extends several miles from Highway 107 at Exit 37 of Interstate 26 to the industrial park on the the southeast edge of Erwin, will also be an issue.

Mayor Greg Lynch said CSX’s 175-acres of level land with utilities running through the heart of the valley is ”something the county has very little of“ and something he believes the economic development board will be looking at purchasing an option on.

Lynch said he learned Thursday afternoon federal grants are available to assist with the retraining of workers displaced from jobs because of decline of fossil fuels, and will be pursuing those grants in the coming days as well as assistance for the workers available through the state Department of Economic Development.

As for CSX presence on the property, company spokeswoman Melanie Cost said, ”At this time, we don’t expect to come back or to return operations to Erwin.“

”We are continuing to look at options on the property,“ Cost said.

 Email Sue Guinn Legg at slegg@johnsoncitypress.com. Follow her on Twitter @sueleggjcpress. Like her on Facebook at facebook.com/sueleggjcpress.

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