• Pope's Creek Branch

  • Discussion pertaining to all railroading subjects, past and present, in Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C.
Discussion pertaining to all railroading subjects, past and present, in Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C.

Moderator: therock

  by RailVet
Earlier this year a plan was announced that would bring coal to the power plant near Popes Creek via barge from South America instead of CSX rail from West Virginia. CSX countered by saying it would have to consider abandoning the line if this happened. The plant produces a great deal of pollution and the coal via barge would reduce it. Charles County has grown substantially in recent years and many would be delighted to see the railroad gone and no longer blocking grade crossings.

Do not be surprised if this becomes a reality and if cessation of operations on this line is greeted with applause by the locals.

Mirant Plan Would Send Coal Up the Potomac
By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 16, 2006; SM01

Officials at Charles County's only commercial power plant detailed their proposal this week to build a 600-foot-long barge unloading facility in the Potomac River that would be capable of receiving 5 million tons of coal per year.

The Morgantown Generating Station in Newburg, Charles County's largest taxpayer, relies on northern Appalachian coal that arrives in train cars to power steam turbines that produce electricity. But officials from Mirant Mid-Atlantic, which owns the power plant, said they want to change the way the coal is transported and to begin using river barges to bring in coal from as far away as South America.

In a presentation to the Charles County commissioners at the plant Tuesday, Mirant officials described their desire to switch to cheaper coal with fewer polluting characteristics and to end the plant's dependence on the railroad lines. About 2.5 million tons of coal a year are carried over CSX tracks to the Morgantown plant.

Tom Graves, Mirant's manager of fuels, told the commissioners that the softer coal found in northern Appalachia produces emissions with a higher sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide content than other potential sources and that the Appalachian coal is in dwindling supply. Using coal with less sulfur could reduce sulfur dioxide emissions by 50 percent, officials said.

The cost of coal has more than doubled over the past five years, and the cost of buying the emissions allowances needed to use it has increased up to sixfold in that period, he said.

"The proposed project will allow for competition in the delivery of coal to the generating stations and ensure that Mirant is no longer captive to [CSX] for its needed coal delivery," Mirant officials said in a brief filed last year with the Maryland Public Service Commission, outlining the plan.

"It will eventually eliminate 300 trains per year through La Plata," Graves said. "That's a significant reduction."

During the hearing process last year before the Public Service Commission, CSX opposed the plan to bring in coal on barges. CSX said in a filing it would lose revenue by reducing the volume of coal shipped and "could be forced to consider curtailment of operations and may even have to seek abandonment of the rail lines which service not only Mirant's Morgantown and Chalk Point power plants, but also the other current and future Charles County and Prince George's County businesses located along the affected lines of railroad."

CSX spokesman Robert Sullivan said this week that the company is in discussions with Mirant about future service and would not comment on those discussions.

The unloading facility would be built 500 feet offshore and include a six-foot-wide dock on steel pilings, a 50-by-42-foot platform, a mechanical unloader capable of handling 1,200 tons of coal per hour, a system of conveyers to transport the coal back to shore and a rail car loading facility, Mirant officials said. Coal unloaded at Morgantown would be taken by rail to Mirant's Chalk Point plant in Prince George's County, just across Swanson Creek from Charles.

Graves said the unloading facility would be served annually by about 180 to 250 coal barges -- each carrying about 14,000 tons of coal up the river. Mirant plans to file for Charles County permits for the process in the next 60 to 90 days, begin construction by the end of this year and be in operation by 2008, Graves said.

According to a draft of an environmental review of the project by the state Department of Natural Resources, officials expected minimal impact to wildlife and water quality. The adverse impacts described in the draft generally involved disrupting views.

The proposed facility "will mark the first industrial intrusion onto the water's surface anywhere within view. Extending nearly 1,000 feet, the facility will stretch from the shore to the easternmost edge of the river's dredged channel, at heights as great as 40 feet," according to the draft of the environmental review.

Before Tuesday's meeting, the county commissioners and other government officials toured the power plant. Equipped with yellow hard hats and protective glasses, the officials saw the steam-powered turbines, the glowing furnace and the control room where computer screens record the constantly changing levels of such measures as the price of electricity and the opacity of the gases released from the 700-foot-tall stacks. The Morgantown plant burns about 10,000 tons of coal a day, officials said.
Commissioners President Wayne Cooper (D-At Large) said the pollution from the barges probably would be less than that from the rail cars because the uncovered trains can leak coal onto the tracks.

The double-hulled barges also would be uncovered.

Commissioner Candice Quinn Kelly (R-La Plata) said she wants to keep an open mind about the project.

"Obviously, nobody wants to see that kind of barge right there in the middle of a body of water that you love. It just changes everything," she said. "But I think we have to all recognize . . . we need electricity, and we need to find ways of generating it that protects the environment and is cost effective."

"We're not going to be business unfriendly," she added. "But in order to do business here, you're going to have to be environmentally friendly. I think it can be done."

During Tuesday's presentation, Mirant officials also discussed steps they have taken to improve water quality at the Faulkner Fly Ash Storage Facility, where some of the byproducts of the burned coal are stored, six miles north of Morgantown. A five-year extension of an operating permit for the ash facility is under review by the county board of appeals, and some residents have been critical of the site because they are concerned about chemicals leaching into the groundwater and affecting the Zekiah Swamp. Mirant officials described the elaborate treatment of runoff from the site, a process designed to preserve the environmental quality of the area.

Larry Garner, Mirant's group leader of fuel and ash, who manages the 950-acre Faulkner site, said that all test results for mercury from 2002 to 2004 were below regulatory limits and that the state Department of the Environment said the company does not have to test anymore for mercury.

Mirant officials also outlined a plan known as a "selective catalytic reduction project," intended to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions from the power plant. The new system, estimated to cost $150 million, is projected to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions by 90 percent, said project manager Steve Dean.

Nitrogen oxide compounds contribute to the formation of ozone and acid rain.

"We're under the gun," he said. "We've got to get this done for the good of the region."

  by Aa3rt
Railvet-note that this article is now 10 months old. There have been a few updates since that article originally appeared in the Washington Post and its minor league subsidiary, Charles County's favorite source of misinformation, the "Maryland Independent" (or "Crabwrapper", if you prefer-good for spreading on a picnic table on a summer day to collect crab shells, but not much else).

Currently there is MOW work being performed on the Popes Creek line in the Upper Marlboro area. I don't think that if the line were in danger of abandonment that CSX would be doing the repairs that have been reported by some members of the Popes Creek Railfans group.

Another article that appeared later in the spring/summer stated that the Morgantown plant would be the first to receive scrubbers to clean exhaust/emissions at the Morgantown plant.

A couple of other points:

1. Power generated at Morgantown and Chalk Point is not consumed in southern Maryland. These plants were built by PEPCO (Potomac Electric Power COmpany) and sold to Mirant in the recent past. This power goes to DC and evirons and further north and west. Power consumed in southern Maryland is brokered by SMECO (Southern Maryland Electric COoperative) and comes from other sources (like VEPCO).

2. I don't think that the Pope's Creek sub is in danger of abandonment. Apparently the political hacks on both the left and the right have discovered (about 30 years too late) the traffic mess known in that automotive nightmare known as "Waldorf" and many were talking about using the line for commuter rail during the most recent elections.

Even if coal were to stop being shipped by rail, there would still be a requirement to trans-ship coal from Morgantown to Chalk Point via Brandywine. The Patuxent River is too shallow to allow for barge shipment of coal to that plant.

As one of my acquaintences in the Popes Creek group suggested, he thought that the threatened abandonment by CSX was simply a grandstanding ploy by CSX to prevent the building of the pier. I didn't initially agree with him but as the months have passed see some credibility to his logic. While the line may not continue as a "conveyor belt" for coal to the Mirant plants in Morgantown and Chalk Point, I don't forsee the abandonment of the line. If nothing else, it may be taken over by MARC (or some other entity) with coal trains still travelling between Morgantown and Chalk Point.
Last edited by Aa3rt on Thu Dec 14, 2006 3:53 pm, edited 1 time in total.

  by hutton_switch

Good updates. Yes, Southern Maryland is growing by leaps and bounds. I agree with you that the Popes Creek Line is like a fish waiting to bite the MARC bait. Another possibility for employees living in Southern Maryland who work at the Dahlgren Naval Surface Weapons Plant just over the Potomac River is that they could take MARC to a possible MARC terminus at Morgantown and then ride a localized shuttle bus across the Governor Harry Nice Bridge to work (provided that projected commuter numbers justify the cost).

Another thing to give thought to is that Calvert and St. Mary's Counties are growing fast as well, and they currently experience rush hour traffic. The unfortunate thing for them is that there currently is no rail line available in their locale that could help shuttle commuters to work in DC, and their growth could see a needed expansion of the Popes Creek line (but at a price).

Also, the area around the Dahlgren installation is growing as well. I unfortunately don't immediately see any possible rail expansion to this area to handle commuter transport, but that could happen sooner than we think.

  by Aa3rt
Just by coincidence, yesterday's (Wednesday, Dec. 13th, 2006) issue of the Maryland Independent includes an article titled "State Hearing set on Morgantown coal barge plan".

The Maryland Board of Public Works has scheduled a public hearing in Annapolis on Mirant Mid-Atlantic's request for a tidal wetlands permit to build a barge unloading facility on the Potomac River shoreline at the Moorgantown plant at 10AM on Dec. 20 in the Louis L. Goldstein Treasury Building, 80 Calvert St, Annapolis. More information can be obtained by calling 410-260-7335.

So this isn't a "done deal" yet. There's also a letter in the "Community Forum" section opposing the pier. As we used to say in the Coast Guard-"Stand by for heavy rolls!"

EDIT:We've had discussion on this line in at least four other threads-

Further down in the DelMarVa & Washington, DC forum:


In the MARC & VRE forum:


In the "General Discussion:Fallen Flags" forum:


And, finally, in the Pennsylvania Railroad forum:

  by RailVet
I ran the question past a CSX friend and he replied, “It’s still in the works and sometime in 2008 the Popes Creek line will be gone, to the delight of CSX.” By "gone" I believe he means CSX intends to divest itself of the line and someone else will be operating it.

  by PVRX1
Is there any or significant local traffic on this line (other than the power plants)? Could it support a short line operation?

  by Aa3rt
There is a (usually) twice weekly local that goes no further south than Waldorf and a gravel train that operates 3 times a week to a facility just north of La Plata.

The Herbert Secondary, which branches off in Brandywine to go to the Chalk Point plant does not see any local traffic. Neither does the approximately 10 miles of the Pope's Creek sub south of the previously mentioned gravel pit. There has not been any local freight on the La Plata siding in approximately 15 years.
  by RailVet
A March 7 article in the Southern Maryland Independent included this paragraph regarding Mirant's desire to build a coal pier on the river:

"One obstacle to Mirant’s proposal was removed last week when the power company and CSX Corp. settled a dispute regarding the transporting of coal to and from the Morgantown plant and the Chalk Point plant in Aquasco in Prince George’s County, said David Moore, the PSC’s hearing examiner. The railroad company has withdrawn its opposition to the proposed barge facility, he said."

The full article can be found here:

http://www.somdnews.com/stories/030707/ ... 2122.shtml
  by RailVet
CSX was in the news this morning as one of its coal trains apparently suffered a broken coupler and blocked Route 301 in Upper Marlboro. The view from the traffic helicopter was impressive - miles of backed-up morning commuters.

  by Trackbolt
I guess we can't write the Popes Creek Secondary off as dead yet. I heard today on WTOP Radio that the branch has been proposed for use as an eastern bypass for freight trains now running through DC. I did not hear where the new Potomac River Crossing would be but the narrow spot in the river is Morgantown. I guess this would call for revival of the Dalghren branch of the RF&P. The proposal was one of three which included an eight mile tunnel from Alexandria to Hyattsville and a western bypass. As the story was read, the reporter was quick to point out that Maryland was against the idea. Stay tuned...

Tony M.
  by RailVet
Today's print version of the Washington Post features a map of the proposed routes. These include the Indian Head line (now owned by Charles County, it's currently inactive, derelict, suffering washouts, bad track, etc.), now awaiting a decision to either pull it up for trail use or reactivate it for coal train service to a new yet-to-be-built power plant on the naval base; and the Popes Creek line, which would cross the river and follow the route of the form Navy Dahlgren ("Dog Grin") line, which only exists now between Fredericksburg and Sealston. The eastern end of the line was torn up decades ago and is now under consideration for trail use. Besides upgrading the tracks where necessary, building new Potomac River bridges would be in order. I'll believe new bridges when I see them.

  by Sand Box John
Proposed Alternative Routes for Freight Trains graphic attached to Washington Post web article Study Proposes Rerouting Hazmat Trains to Maryland.

Three routes are being considered for all freight trains, including those transporting hazardous materials, passing through the District. Two of the routes would pass through Prince George's and Charles counties.
By Nathaniel Vaughn Kelso, The Washington Post
  by RailVet
Looking closely at the Indian Head option, the route follows about two-thirds of the eastern end of the line, then heads southwest across virgin territory to the river instead of going through the naval base itself.

  by Trackbolt
The word proposal is key. This is going to be red meat to the NIMBYS. Especially if you consider the numerous and expensive homes being built along the branch between Upper Marlboro and Bowie. By the negative reactions from the State of Maryland and Prince Georges County it sounds as if they are gathering arms and ammunition (lawyers) as we speak. While Charles County is still rural in the areas of the rights of way, it too is growing upscale residential neighborhoods. They will probbly join MD and PG. I guess those jusrisdictions stand to benefit more from residential property tax than any revenue benefit they could derive from the rail line. Thirty years ago no problem it was mostly rural.