Canton has traditionally been a blue-collar neighborhood, and for more than 100 years, the Canton Railroad Co. has been a part of that mix, moving freight for local industries and the port of Baltimore.
Its locomotives are a familiar — and at times frustrating — sight for those traveling into Canton from the east, where the company's tracks crisscross Boston and O'Donnell streets. Long trains sometimes mean long waits for drivers.
John C. Magness, the company's president and CEO, said the state-owned railroad's core mission continues. However, it also is aware that more residents than ever live in the increasingly urbanized, bustling neighborhood — and it wants to be a good neighbor.
The Baltimore Sun caught up with Magness to get his thoughts on where the company is headed.
What's is your business and who are some of your biggest customers?
Canton Railroad Co. is a switching carrier that provides local service to industries located along our rail lines. We connect with both CSX and Norfolk Southern railroads, which link our customers with the national rail system. For example, we receive rail cars from our connecting carriers, we put the cars in order by customer and deliver them to their facilities. In addition we provide services such as weighing, car ordering, rate procurement, and issue movement instructions to our connecting carriers. Ironically we do not get paid by our customers to move the cars, but by our connecting carriers by way of a "switching fee," which is taken from the overall freight bill the shipper pays. Some of our biggest customers are Sun Products (soap manufacturer), Apex Oil (crude oil), Lehigh Cement, GAF (roofing shingles), Boise Cascade and Weyerhaeuser (lumber). Our goal is to be safe, reliable and competitively priced. … We also control the rail access to the Seagirt Marine Terminal and allow CSX use of those tracks to operate their intermodal [container] trains to and from the facility, from which we receive a "trackage rights" fee per revenue container.
The port of Baltimore is in the midst of a growth spurt. Does this mean more opportunity, more competition, or both for you? How so?
The growth of the port of Baltimore, especially during the past few years, has been remarkable. … We have seen some growth from the increased port activities and we plan on even more growth through our relationship with Ports America at Seagirt. Once CSX moves their intermodal operation to Southwest Baltimore, we will be able to provide equal rail access for shippers to both CSX and Norfolk Southern railroads. … We expect that access to provide competitive rates and service to and from Ports America's operation. We also have a goal of providing equal access at other port-related facilities and potential investment in specific rail equipment to provide for movement of dimensional shipments from the port.
The Canton neighborhood has changed dramatically in recent years, with new commercial and residential properties closer to the industrial area than ever, and more development on the way. How does this affect you or your plans for the future?
The change in our service area over the last 15 years or so has been dramatic. We basically are surrounded by new commercial and residential projects and have no way to really expand our current rail operation. While we will continue to work with the current rail franchise we own, our future lies outside that boundary. In 2005 we built a transloading facility for shippers that are located outside of our rail lines. We transfer product out of the rail car and into trucks for delivery, thereby giving the customer the advantages of long-haul rail rates. Our other objective is to increase our outside services through Freestate Logistic Services Inc. by locating local switching operations in large industrial parks and private facilities that need localized service. We also are looking into acquiring existing rail operations in Maryland.
Do you get a lot of grief about your trains causing long waits for drivers on Boston and O'Donnell streets? With the population only getting bigger, do you have any advice for avoiding backups?
We do hear from folks from time to time about delays at road crossings. In our area we also have CSX and Norfolk Southern train activity, too. I know it can be frustrating at times and we are trying to find creative ways to mitigate that interference. One thing that we worked with Baltimore City on was posting detour signs that notify drivers that the train is at the crossing and which way to detour. Also, we are working on a project to build a small rail yard near Kane Street and Eastern Avenue that will allow us to switch more of our rail cars there and limit the amount of time we are switching over road crossings. This will also reduce the number of horn blows as we cross over the road. My advice to drivers in the Canton area is, if you are heading toward [Interstate] 95, do not take Boston Street. Instead use O'Donnell Street.
In a 2006 article on the Canton Railroad's 100th anniversary, you said you really aren't a "rail fan." What does get your gears going?
Wow. I took some heat for my rail fan comment then! What I meant was that I am not a rail hobby guy. I don't collect trains or go around photographing locomotives or things like that. But I am a big fan of the rail industry. I believe in us being a "green" industry and in our safety record as a whole. I know that there have been some terrible incidents recently, but I can tell you everyone takes safety and community concerns very seriously. Keep in mind that we move the vast majority of chemicals in this country. Imagine sharing the road with all those chemicals. As far as what gets me going, I enjoy working for new opportunities for Canton and Freestate, mentoring some of my younger employees, and having a great place to come to every day.