Conrail uses old-time train rides to engineer new business Executives offered chance to 'network'

October 13, 1991|By John H. Gormley Jr. | John H. Gormley Jr.,Sun Staff Correspondent

Bowie -- Two 1950s vintage locomotives pulled the dark green train at a sedate pace across a wooded Southern Maryland landscape punctuated by old farms and ponds sprouting lily pads. From an observation car at the end of the train, Edward Szympruch watched the scenery recede and the tracks converge at the vanishing point.

Everything about the setting was suggestive of the past. But Mr. Szympruch, a vice president of Genstar Stone Products Co. in Hunt Valley, was thinking about the future. He expects this Conrail line will someday help carry sand and crushed rock between the Baltimore area and Southern Maryland -- to the mutual benefit of his company and the railroad.

Excursions such as this one last week have become a part of Conrail's long-term business development strategy.

In the spring and fall, Conrail invites government officials, real estate developers, industrialists and other business people on jaunts along rail corridors with development potential. There's no hard sell. The excursions are rolling "networking" sessions, which Conrail hopes will inspire projects generating more railroad traffic.

Conrail has used the train as a marketing device for about 10 years but has greatly increased its use in the last two or three, said Charles N. Marshall, the railroad's senior vice president for development.

He says it carries an impact few companies can match: "All big companies have corporate jets, but not many have this."

As the train made its way south from Bowie to a power plant near the U.S. 301 bridge last week, train buffs raced ahead in cars to take photographs at each grade crossing. Nostalgia also was part of the appeal for those on board -- but it was not the main reason they had come along. Like Mr. Szympruch, most were looking for ways to make more money.

"We all know why we're here," said James C. McKeever Jr., president of a Fairfax, Va., company that helps developers get the permits they need for their projects. "We're riding through a developing window."

Sitting at a table in a car near the middle of the train, he pointed out the window as the trees and fields swept by. "Look at the old barn over there," he said. "There's beauty there.

"We're also looking at the bottom line. This is business. There's just enough romance in trains so you think a little more creatively."

Conrail believes that in the next few years, growth radiating out of Washington will spill over into Charles County. The upper half of the branch line taken by the Conrail train is largely developed. But south of Waldorf, it is still largely rural. As commercial and industrial projects start cropping up in what is now woods or farmland, Conrail hopes developers will consider how the railroad can assist the new businesses.

An observation car at the rear of the train gives people a chance to imagine the possibilities along a relatively undeveloped railroad corridor. Its rear window is about 5 feet tall and stretches the full width of the car. Rear-facing seats are arranged in ascending rows, affording everyone an unobstructed view out the window. It's like watching the screen in an intimate movie theater. In fact, this is known as "the theater car."

John Betak, Conrail's assistant vice president for asset development, emphasized the long-term nature of this kind of business development program. Conrail simply wants to provide fertile ground for people to think about rail transportation in connection with their projects.

These rides also provide a relaxed, slow-paced setting for developers and entrepreneurs to meet the railroad's development people. "Economic development takes nurturing. This is part of the nurturing process," Mr. Betak said.

Although the emphasis may be on long-term results, some projects being discussed on the train were very tangible. Mr. Szympruch, for example, said that he expects Genstar to go ahead with its project for moving sand and crushed rock within about 18 months.

It's easy to see why. Using the Conrail line south of Bowie will make it possible for Genstar, the largest producer of sand and crushed rock in the state, to overcome a basic problem created by Maryland's geology: Rock formations and sand formations are located in different parts of the state.

Genstar plans to build loading and unloading facilities along the tracks that will link the plentiful sand supplies of Southern Maryland with the company's rock quarries north and west of Baltimore.

Rock, which sells for $6 a ton at Genstar's quarry in Cockeysville, can be moved south by rail in large quantities to Charles County, where crushed rock currently sells for about $12, Mr. Szympruch explained. The same train can pick up sand that sells for $5 or $6 a ton in Charles County and haul it north to the Baltimore area, where it fetches $10 a ton.

Mr. McKeever, head of the company that helps developers get permits, thinks the train helps others see the possibilities for linking their projects to the railroad.

"The pace of the train is exactly right," he said. "This is creative. This is smart. It speaks a lot about Conrail. They don't have to say a word. The message is here."

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