“THE WHEELING WAY”
The history of the Wheeling & Lake Erie Railway Company (W&LE) began in 1871 with the need for a rail connection between the Wheeling, West Virginia coal fields and Lake Erie port cities and facilities. Initial enthusiasm was offset by capital constraints and financial difficulties which slowed the progression of the line until 1877 when interest began again in earnest to move southeastern Ohio coal to Lake Erie and iron ore from the Lake to steel plants in southeast Ohio. In 1913 the main offices were moved to Brewster, Ohio, where they remain today.
After World War II, W&LE has had various owners — first the Nickel Plate leased the line, then the Norfolk & Western took control, and finally, the Norfolk & Western and Southern Railway merged to become Norfolk Southern (NS). The W&LE was dissolved as a corporate entity in 1989. A spin off sale in 1990 by the NS to a group of investors renewed the old corporate name. The new rail system was now made up of a combination of the former W&LE, the Pittsburgh & West Virginia (PWV) and the Akron, Canton & Youngstown (ACY) lines. The 576 miles of track, combined with trackage rights acquired from NS, encompassed 840 miles.
After the 1990 sale there were initial financial struggles, including a debt restructuring in 1994. But after the restructuring, the success of the new W&LE became apparent. In 1994 the Company also grew with the acquisition of the former Akron and Barberton Belt Railroad and part of the local Conrail “Cluster” railroad in the greater Akron, Ohio, area. The renamed company, Akron Barberton Cluster Railway, handles in excess of 10,000 carloads per year for about 25 customers, primarily consisting of traffic in aggregates, chemicals, grain, plastic products, and scrap iron.
W&LE now handles over 100,000 carloads per year and operates in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Maryland. The company is private, 100% internally owned, and currently has 325 employees. W&LE is the largest Ohio-based railroad and is among the largest regional railroads in the country. The company has over 120 customers and a continually growing customer base. W&LE interchanges in numerous locations with three major Class I Railroads (Canadian National, CSX Transportation, and Norfolk Southern), as well as 14 regionals and shortlines. One of the results of the breakup/merger of Conrail was that the Surface Transportation Board granted trackage rights to W&LE over approximately 56 miles of track providing interchange access in Toledo, Ohio, including Canadian National Railway and the Ann Arbor Railroad. It also gained additional trackage rights of approximately 53 miles over CSXT with access to Lima, Ohio, with the interchange to the Indiana and Ohio Railway.
Multiple Class I connections have enabled the W&LE customers to benefit from competitive rail rates and service. Many of the major commodities handled (such as coal and steel) remain the same as in the early days but new customers bring both greater diversification and traffic. W&LE currently handles steel and raw materials to and from five different mills, aggregates from three different quarries, chemicals, industrial minerals, including frac sand, plastic products, grain, food products, lumber, paper, and petroleum products including Marcellus and Utica LPGs and NGLs.
W&LE mainline tracks are rated for 286,000 pounds gross weight on rail and mainline track speed is now up to 40 miles per hour for the majority of the mainline as a result of the installation of over 170,000 new ties, and continuous welded rail, as well as improvements made to many bridges and tunnels. In 2004 Railway Age Magazine selected W&LE as Regional Railroad of the Year.
An asset that has proved productive for the new W&LE is the Brewster shop complex. As far back as 1910 the W&LE built 0-8-0 steam engines in the Brewster locomotive shop and the upgraded shop continues to be a valuable asset of the W&LE, offering locomotive and car rebuilds, repairs, as well as fabrication services to other railroads. This extensive facility can accommodate the repair of 50 cars under roof and 50 additional cars outside with a storage yard area for 1000 cars.
W&LE has committed many hours to assist in developing community awareness of railroad/highway safety through Operation Lifesaver and has received four national safety awards in the last seven years for employee safety.
W&LE has a promising future with the growing and varied traffic base of bulk commodities, heavy on-line traffic and interline potential. It has a strategic location in the Marcellus and Utica Shale natural gas and oil production areas in Ohio and Pennsylvania which gives W&LE a strong foundation on which to continue building. W&LE has become a successful regional railroad and will continue to grow and improve with its dedication to safety, customer service, and efficiency.