Short Line of the Year: Napoleon, Defiance & Western
March 19, 2023
Railway Age’s 2023 Short Line of the Year is the Napoleon, Defiance & Western (NDW), a railroad that has gone from “worst to first” with character and grit, nearly $13 million in recent public and private investment, and now with a bright business outlook.
“On behalf of the Patriot Rail team, we deeply appreciate this recognition across all short lines in the United States,” Patriot Rail President and CEO John E. Fenton said. “Not long ago, the NDW
faced bleak abandonment, but with the strong support of so many stakeholders building on the financial commitment of the Ohio Rail Development Commission (ORDC) and the Federal
Railroad Administration (FRA), we have revitalized this railroad. The new NDW and the benefits it will deliver to customers and communities in Ohio exemplifies what can be accomplished
everywhere with dedicated partnership and public/private investment in short line railroads.”
NDW traces its roots back to the Wabash Railroad, established in 1855 to fulfill the vision of Indiana and Ohio business leaders to form an unbroken railway connecting Toledo, Ohio, with
the Mississippi River. The Wabash served an important role during the Civil War hauling troops, food and supplies, and subsequently survived the Great Depression and both World Wars.
Known as the “Heart of America,” it served as a key economic driver for the Midwest.
Later in the 20th century, divestment, abandonments and deferred maintenance devastated the line, leading to the unfortunate distinction as the “Worst Railroad in America.”
“The exceptionally degraded tie conditions and worn rail resulted in trains moving at a walking speed and often derailing three times on a single run,” according to Patriot Rail Vice President
Today, NDW’s 58.2 miles of right-of-way runs from Woodburn, Ind., to Liberty Center, Ohio, interchanging with Norfolk Southern at Woodburn and CSX at Defiance, Ohio. It handles
primarily aggregates, chemicals, food products, plastics, lumber, pulpwood and particleboard.
In September 2022, NDW became part of Jacksonville, Fla.-based Patriot Rail Company, after Patriot acquired short line holding company Pioneer Lines.
NDW’s prior owners forged partnerships with multiple stakeholders and especially the ORDC, enabling multiple grants to put the short line on a path to restoration and further investment.
More than $9.5 million in public and private grant investment—including a 2020 Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements (CRISI) award of $4.1 million from the FRA—covered
the replacement of 29,000 ties and 13 miles of rail on the 29-mile Woodburn-to-Defiance alignment.
“This award from Railway Age underscores the power of partnerships,” ORDC Executive Director Matthew Dietrich said. “With NDW’s vision and willingness to commit the necessary resources to
make critical infrastructure improvements, we established a win-win successful partnership for the benefit of the railroad, their customers and employees, our communities, and the state. This
is a well-deserved honor, and we look forward to continuing the partnership into the future to rebuild the NDW’s entire line.”
The now-completed CRISI grant and other investment enabled upgrading NDW’s Woodburn-Defiance segment from FRA excepted track to Class 1 safety status, allowing the railroad to
operate longer trains at two-to-three times previous speeds to better serve customers. NDW, once a contender for the highest derailment rate of any rail line in the U.S., has achieved zero
reportable derailments and zero reportable incidents on the rehabilitated alignment since the completion of the project in July 2022.
With an improved railroad, NDW revamped its marketing strategy to grow current customer carloads and attract new business. NDW fortified strategic relationships with state and local
economic development agencies and started new conversations with current customers to rebuild confidence in the line.
“The NDW means a lot to Campbell’s Soup,” said Gavin Serrao, Regional Logistics Manager for Campbell’s Soup Napoleon. “The CRISI project completed last year meant a lot to us in terms of
having efficient and timely deliveries of our cars and it also opened up a lot more future opportunities for growth.”
An improved online presence and a media blitz at each milestone of the reconstruction helped to create excitement about the railroad, according to NDW. Strategic engagement plans began
to draw new business to the line, while town halls amplified NDW’s commitment to the community and highlighted services the railroad could offer to local businesses. “All of these efforts showed immediate results,” Turnauckas noted. “Last year, Tessenderlo Kerley, Inc. (TKI) broke ground on a new multi-million-dollar fertilizer plant, and APackaging Group (APG) announced plans to construct a $49 million, 800,000 square-foot facility along NDW; both are slated to create more than 150 jobs in the community.”
“NDW’s commitment to helping customers meet their needs and investment in revitalizing the rail services illustrates their dedication to transforming the railroad industry,” TKI Executive Vice
President Russell Sides said. “We are proud to partner with the NDW and Patriot Rail as we work together to safely and efficiently deliver essential nutrients to farmers, and we look forward to
our continued partnership.”
TKI and APG investments, coupled with renewed line confidence, are expected to drive an 18% year-over-year increase in NDW carloads in 2023.
“There’s still work to be done,” Fenton said. “The first CRISI award was a great outcome, and we found an amazing partner with the ORDC. Together, we look to finish the job and improve the
remainder of the line.”
ORDC’s current pending CRISI request with NDW would bring the Defiance-to-Napoleon segment up to FRA Class 1 track status, elevating safety, efficiency and capacity.
“Short line railroads such as the NDW help drive the economy in every part of America, creating jobs, protecting the environment, improving safety, and reducing the burden of heavy freight on
highways,” Fenton added. “At Patriot Rail, we will continue to leverage the deep rail expertise of our team to provide outstanding service to our customers. The entire short line rail sector looks
forward to the opportunity to build more choice, resiliency, and sustainability for rail shippers in states across the nation through the same kind of dedicated public-private investment partnership that made the NDW Woodburn-to-Defiance transformation such a success.”
Written by Railway Age Staff