Akron Barberton Belt struggles to survive

Akron Beacon Journal: N. Peacock / D. Oplinger January 2, 1984

The little engine that cried “I think I can, I think I can” has come upon another big mountain.

The Akron & Barberton Belt Railroad, which during the last three years revived itself from near extinction, is losing about 65 percent of its traffic because of the PPG Industries plant closing in Barberton. As a result, the railroad is facing a “marginal future,” according to its general manager.

For businesses along the A&BBR track from East Akron to Barberton, failure of the railroad could be quite costly. Taxpayers, too, have a major interest, because the Ohio Department of Transportation contributed $1.3 million to the railroad in the last three years to help it revitalize track and equipment.

Ironically, the future of the 91-year-old railroad may be in the hands of Conrail, which is both a competitor and an owner. Conrail has a 50-percent interest in the A&BBR. The Norfolk Southern Railway and Chessie System split the remaining 50 percent. The profits and losses of the A&BBR are shared by the owners, based on their percentage of ownership.

The Akron Regional Development Board has proposed that Conrail turn over its switching operations stretching from downtown Akron to Rittman to the A&BBR in an attempt to keep the Akron company profitable. But Conrail is “adamantly opposed” to that idea, according to Don Stephens, executive director of the ARDB.

He said Conrail officials explained that their operations here are profitable and could become more profitable when the economy improves.

Meanwhile, Conrail has proposed to the Interstate Commerce Commission that it abandon numerous routes in the Akron area, including one four-mile stretch that the A&BBR would like to acquire between Wadsworth and Rittman. Conrail contends the four-mile stretch, which serves the Packaging Corporation of America plant in Rittman, does not provide sufficient income.

Businesses in South Akron and Barberton are lobbying in favor of the A&BBR, which they say charges lower rates and offers better service than the major competing line – Conrail.

“The A&BBR has demonstrated to us their vastly superior service and competitive pricing rates in switching,” Harvey Graves of Brown-Graves Co. said in a recent letter to the ARDB.

“The Conrail service has been slow and nonchalant.”

Brown Graves has been shipping lumber on the railroad even when there were other equally efficient modes available.

B.F. Goodrich and the Babcock & Wilcox company have also shifted some freight to the small railroad to help it survive, according to A&BBR officials.

STEPHENS said the ARDB has been studying the situation and offering solutions since last summer, with little result. A recent meeting with Conrail officials indicated the quasi-government railroad has no intention of relinquishing its rail business here.

One source said Conrail is taking a hard line that, “If it (Conrail) can’t be profitable at something, it will shut the line down so no one else can have it.”

In addition, the three owners are concerned about attempting to work out the problems because they fear violating antitrust laws, the source said.

The ARDB has calculated that failure of the A&BBR and loss of its 31 jobs could be much more costly to each of the owners than if Conrail were to end its operations in Akron and turn its switching business over to the A&BBR.

Conrail said it is prepared to consider an offer for any of its money-losing track -= including that between Wadsworth and Rittman – but no formal proposal has been received.

In addition, Conrail officials said they have received a mandate from Congress to eliminate all unprofitable track and keep all profitable track in an effort to keep the company out of the red. That mandate prevents the company from considering the sale of any segments in Akron that continue to generate sufficient income.

William Frederick Jr., general manager of the railroad, said the A&BBR was beginning to show a profit this year, but the loss of PPG’s caustic soda business will put the company into the red again.

“We have to find additional business to stay at the break-even point, or else raise our prices,” Fredrick said. “But then we would be out of the competition.”

FREDRICK, whose positive demeanor helped revive the railroad when he came on board in 1980, said that the railroad faces a major struggle.

Three years ago, when Fredrick was transferred by Conrail to Akron to manage the A&BBR, the company had just finished 1979 with a loss of $988,000 after switching 12,800 cars and suffering 51 derailments.

For the first 11 months of 1983, the company was showing a profit of $180,000 after switching an annual rate of about 3,800 to 4,000 cars, with no derailments. Unlike the major railroads, which make a portion of their income from moving freight over long distances, the A&BBR makes money by delivering and picking up railroad cars at numerous businesses.

“We’re a damn good little railroad,” Fredrick said. “Most of the things that worked out well came from the people on the grounds,” he said. “I just took advantage of their brains.”

THE RAILROAD was constructed by O.C. Barber, the Akron industrialist who picked up his business empire and moved southwest of town to establish his own community. He needed to link his numerous factories to the main railroads serving the area, so he built the Barberton Beltline Railroad Co., which steamed into Akron in 1892, where it linked with what later became the Pennsylvania Railroad.

In the next 10 years, Barber embarked on two other programs to build railroads to Cleveland and Youngstown, but the farthest north he got was Fairlawn, and the farthest east was near the General Tire plant in East Akron.

In 1902, he sold the railroad for $1 million to the Pennsylvania, Erie, Northern Ohio and the Baltimore & Ohio railroads, each of which gained one fourth ownership. Conrail gained 50 percent ownership with the merger of the Pennsylvania and Erie. The Northern Ohio went through three name changes: Akron, Canto & Youngstown; Norfolk & Western and Norfolk Southern. The B&O is now part of Chessie System.

In spite of the three-way ownership , Fredrick said the company has “a very high degree of local autonomy. The day-to-day operations are handled here.”

HE SAID the A&BBR is profitable because it can offer service that the larger railroads are not interested in offering. “They have to worry about getting traffic from Buffalo to Akron,” while the A&BBR is concerned with moving freight in just the Akron area, he said.

Frederick said that he is confident the A&BBR could take over the Conrail track, as proposed by the ARDB, and make a profit – even on the stretch from Wadsworth to Rittman.

The A&BBR did not, however, rebuild itself without government help. The railroad secured two loans totaling $1.3 million from the Ohio Department of Transportation to help rebuild half of the track system. According to Frederick, the work was finished ahead of schedule, under budget and on more track than was originally proposed.

The company also decided to buy its own locomotives rather than depend on leased equipment, which was sometimes recalled by the owners. Frederick said the company found two out-of-service Conrail switching locomotives that had good pulling power at low speeds and good cornering on tight curves.

NOW, for the first time since 1972, the company has two locomotives decorated with its own logo and black and gold paint.

But the railroad still had an image problem.

“No one knew we were here,” Frederick said. “We were a paper railroad; we were invisible.”

The company’s national visibility improved this month with a cover story in Railfan Magazine, a publication for railroad buffs.

In addition, employees voluntarily built large signs for the railroad buildings and erected them during their lunch hours and on weekends.

A&BBR employees haven’t experienced much turnover – the youngest has 28 years of service.

The brakemen, conductors and engineers are represented by the United Transportation Union and the track maintenance people are members of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way.

“We both recognize the need to cooperate and work together,” Frederick said. “It’s hard enough to exist; the economy is in bad enough shape. We don’t need to waste time fighting with each other.”

IN MARCH, the railroad’s employees were stunned by PPG’s announcement that it would close most of its Barberton operation. By September, the railroad had lost its biggest customer and 65 percent of its business.

“We fall back, regroup and try to attract new business,” Frederick said.

The loss also meant cutting back to one crew, laying off the track workers through the winter and a wage freeze for the management.

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