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Strong rail demand spurs $4.2M for 6 Western Pa. upgrade projects

Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review - Roadmaster Mike Yaros, right, looks over the newly reconstructed Chicora Railroad bridge Friday, March 7, 2014. The bridge, now made of steel with pilings driven deep underground, will support more weight for the passing trains.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Heidi Murrin  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>Roadmaster Mike Yaros, right, looks over the newly reconstructed Chicora Railroad bridge Friday, March 7, 2014.  The bridge, now made of steel with pilings driven deep underground, will support more weight for the passing trains.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review - Roadmaster Mike Yaros describes how pieces of wood have been put in place over the years to accomodate the sinking Iron City Bridge in Chicora Friday, March 7, 2014. The mud sills have sunk into the wet ground with all the weight. New steel beams with pilings driven into the ground will soon replace the wooden structure.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Heidi Murrin  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>Roadmaster Mike Yaros describes how pieces of wood have been put in place over the years to accomodate the sinking Iron City Bridge in Chicora Friday, March 7, 2014.  The mud sills have sunk into the wet ground with all the weight.  New steel beams with pilings driven into the ground will soon replace the wooden structure.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review - Pieces of wood have been added to the base of the Iron City Bridge in Chicora over the years to help support the wooden structure as it sunk into the ground under the weight of passing trains.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Heidi Murrin  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>Pieces of wood have been added to the base of the Iron City Bridge in Chicora over the years to help support the wooden structure as it sunk into the ground under the weight of passing trains.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review - The old wooden Iron City Bridge in Chicora will soon be replaced with steel beams and pilings driven into the ground to better support passing trains.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Heidi Murrin  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>The old wooden Iron City Bridge in Chicora will soon be replaced with steel beams and pilings driven into the ground to better support passing trains.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review - New steel beams now support the Chicora Railroad bridge Friday, March 7, 2014.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Heidi Murrin  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>New steel beams now support the Chicora Railroad bridge Friday, March 7, 2014.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review - Roadmaster Mike Yaros stands in front of the recently reconstructed Buffalo and Pittsburgh Railroad Chicora Bridge Friday, March 7, 2014. Steel beams driven deep in the ground will support more weight.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Heidi Murrin  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>Roadmaster Mike Yaros stands in front of the recently reconstructed Buffalo and Pittsburgh Railroad Chicora Bridge Friday, March 7, 2014.  Steel beams driven deep in the ground will support more weight.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review - A train makes its way across the Buffalo & Pittsburgh Railroad Chicora Bridge Friday, March 7, 2014. Recently reconstructed, the bridge's new steel beams will support more weight.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Heidi Murrin  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>A train makes its way across the Buffalo & Pittsburgh Railroad Chicora Bridge Friday, March 7, 2014.  Recently reconstructed, the bridge's new steel beams will support more weight.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-ReviewP - A train makes its way across the Buffalo & Pittsburgh Chicora Bridge Friday, March 7, 2014. The recently reconstructed bridge now has steel beams with pilings driven deep into the ground to support more weight.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Heidi Murrin  |  Tribune-ReviewP</em></div>A train makes its way across the Buffalo & Pittsburgh Chicora Bridge Friday, March 7, 2014.  The recently reconstructed bridge now has steel beams with pilings driven deep into the ground to support more weight.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review - The Buffalo & Pittsburgh Iron City railroad bridge in Chicora will soon be getting a makeover removing the old wooden beams with new steel ones.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Heidi Murrin  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>The Buffalo & Pittsburgh Iron City railroad bridge in Chicora will soon be getting a makeover removing the old wooden beams with new steel ones.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review - These wooden beams on the old Iron City Bridge in Chicora will soon be replaced with steel ones to better support the passing trains Friday, March 7, 2014.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Heidi Murrin  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>These wooden beams on the old Iron City Bridge in Chicora will soon be replaced with steel ones to better support the passing trains Friday, March 7, 2014.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review - Roadmaster Mike Yaros stands in front of the Iron City Bridge in Chicora Friday, March 7, 2014. The old wooden structure will be replaced with steel beams to better support the passing trains Friday, March 7, 2014.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Heidi Murrin  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>Roadmaster Mike Yaros stands in front of the Iron City Bridge in Chicora Friday, March 7, 2014.  The old wooden structure will be replaced with steel beams to better support the passing trains Friday, March 7, 2014.
Wednesday, March 12, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
 

When Mike Yaras first began working on the railroad a little over 30 years ago, timber ties were laid by hand. Train cars were shorter. Spikes were heavier.

“There's a lot of things we used to do in the old days by brute force,” he said. “We don't do that anymore. We have equipment to do that.”

Yaras is now a roadmaster with Genesee & Wyoming, which operates rail freight lines throughout Western Pennsylvania as well as more than 60 short line railroads across the U.S. and five other countries. He engineers the tracks from Punxsutawney stretching across to New Castle.

At 58, Yaras has spent most of his life in the same industry his father worked in for 43 years. The allure of fixing track and building lines kept him from pursuing other jobs.

“I have a degree in business administration but I've always come back to rail,” he said.

Though Pennsylvania's rail freight lines date to the Industrial Revolution, new public and private investment in the lines has positioned them in the growth of manufacturing in the state's southwest. The natural gas industry has fueled these investments, as shipments of sand, water and chemicals are shipped across the Marcellus Shale region.

“As the economy is starting to rebound we're starting to see changes,” Yaras said.

More improvements are coming to southwestern Pennsylvania rail freight lines this year. The latest round of rail grants, totaling $33 million from the State Transportation Commission, will funnel nearly $4.2 million to six southwestern rail projects that are expected to retain and create more than 6,700 jobs in the local economy.

Yaras recently supervised the engineering of upgrades to the Buffalo and Pittsburgh Northern Subdivision, a 15-mile stretch of track starting in Butler and heading north. The updates began in 2010, bolstered by a $3 million grant from the state government.

Steel and concrete replaced the timber trestles on the near-century old bridges.

“That type of improvement will last over 100 years,” said Jerry Vest, vice president of government and industry affairs for Genesee & Wyoming. “It helps solidify the rail.”

Vest, who lives in Allegheny County, has worked in the rail industry for 27 years. Though the technology has changed, the need for businesses to get their products to market hasn't, he said.

“No one transports something just for the sake of transportation,” he said.

Rail transportation jobs in the greater Pittsburgh region are set to grow 9.2 percent — from 1,960 to 2,140 — through 2020, according to long-term employment projections compiled by the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry. The Keystone State Railroad Association estimates that every railroad job created supports 4.5 indirect jobs.

State investment propels rail upgrades. From 2010 through 2011, the state share of nearly $100 million in rail projects was around 70 percent, according to the Keystone State Railroad Association.

Mike Filoni, vice president of sales and marketing with the Allegheny Valley Railroad, said rail is more fuel efficient for businesses transporting goods. Around four truckloads of freight can fit in one rail car, he said.

“Every amount of freight that we put on the rails takes that off the highways,” he said.

One recent state award, a $1.1 million grant to the Westmoreland County Industrial Development Corporation, will go toward repairing 2.4 miles of its tracks along its 33-mile interchange. Keeping the line operational is estimated to create and retain more than 5,300 jobs.

Westmoreland County Commissioner Tyler Courtney said the repairs are needed because increased traffic on the route in recent years has worn down curves in the tracks.

“The natural gas industry is shipping a lot of products,” he said. “You're seeing an increase in the use of rail service to get the products close to the area where they're being utilized.”

Melissa Daniels is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-8511 or mdaniels@tribweb.com.

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