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

| 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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