1 man's dream resurrects a railroad

April 04, 1993|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,Staff Writer

Ken Pippin wanted to talk trains that rainy Saturday in 1985 when he caught up with William Donald Schaefer munching a burger and fries in a Baltimore Hardee's. Trains that would carry passengers as they once did on the old Baltimore & Annapolis Railroad.

Mr. Schaefer offered a few words of encouragement, but others -- transportation engineers, state and county lawmakers, civic leaders, residents -- just nodded politely and said it'll never happen or laughed when the B&A's new owner shared his vision.

Even then-Gov. Harry Hughes, a former state secretary of transportation, wasn't buying the idea.

"He told me a light rail system would never work," Mr. Pippin says. "He didn't think it was viable."

Now, Mr. Pippin, who staked everything he had to buy the broken-down B&A freight line for $1 million in 1984, looks like a visionary. Friday, the first three miles of the Central Light Rail Line's southern spur opened -- built along the six-mile right of way Mr. Pippin, 43, sold to the state for $9 million.

The B&A cut passenger train service in 1950, but kept the freight line operating. In later years, most of the B&A's income came from its fleet of charter buses, and most of its headaches from the freight trains. By August 1983, the board of directors decided to sell the railroad and abandon the few remaining customers.

That seemed a shame to Mr. Pippin, then working for a Glen Burnie truck leasing company. He became intrigued with the idea of restoring the railroad and the tracks he used to walk on his way home from Andover High.

"I thought maybe something could be done to bring the railroad company back," he says. "It was something broken down, and I've always been motivated by putting things together."

But few others shared his enthusiasm. Says Mr. Pippin: "I went to

three or four banks, and nobody wanted to loan me the money. The reaction was, 'Why would you want it?' "

Undaunted, he staked his house, his possessions, his remaining cash on the old freight line, got his loan and bought it.

The new owner found his little railroad in disrepair. The tracks were rusting, the ties rotting and the roadbed wasting away. He found ties at Fort Meade for $18, $100 less than on the open market. He bought his own gravel and handled his own track maintenance.

Mr. Pippin worked seven-day weeks, recruiting help from his father, his brother, his sons and some high school students to piece the rotting track back together. By the end of the year, the railroad doubled the annual number of boxcar runs from 300 to 600.

But the B&A's comeback -- running freight from Glen Burnie paper plants to Baltimore -- still seemed incomplete without passenger service.

Around that time, the state's official view of light rail began to change. In late 1986, Governor-elect Schaefer asked his transportation secretary, William K. Hellmann, and an aide to meet with Mr. Pippin and an engineer from San Diego's light rail system.

"I think they thought they were coming to meet with grown men playing with trains on the floor," Mr. Pippin recalls. "But I think we impressed them with our studies and research."

The governor built on Mr. Pippin's proposal to run a line from Dorsey Road to Camden Station, extending the line up Howard Street and into Baltimore County.

Ironically, Mr. Pippin says, he never intended to sell the right of way. He had hoped the state would pay him for the rights to use the line. But during more than two years, negotiations became increasingly bitter. At one point, the state threatened to condemn the land, drawing accusations from the B&A that state officials had repeatedly reneged on earlier agreements on the price.

Mr. Pippin also had hoped to contract with the Mass Transit Administration to run freight service on the line at night but says the state never gave him a chance. The freight business ran until August 1991, when the MTA began building the southern spur.

Today, the light rail's electric-powered trolleys run past the old Linthicum station house on West Maple Road that serves as Mr. Pippin's B&A office.

The company still owns a locomotive, three boxcars and a yellow caboose parked at the end of the old line.

If he could work it out, Mr. Pippin says, he'd still like to run freight trains on the rail line after passenger hours.

Or, he adds, he might use some of his right of way profits to buy another railroad.

"Railroads around the country have approached us and invited us to buy," he says. "My preference is to stay in Maryland. I hope we can."

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