State will give struggling tourist train a push

January 16, 1995|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,Western Maryland Bureau of The Sun

CUMBERLAND -- The state government will buy the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad's mountainous right of way from here to Frostburg as part of a nearly $2 million deal to help the struggling tourist train survive.

Under the agreement approved in Annapolis by the Board of Public Works last week the state will buy the railroad's twisting, 15.6-mile right of way for $1 million. The state also will provide up to $100,000 a year in right-of-way maintenance.

In return, the railroad will lease the track from the state for a nomi

nal annual fee, and focus its business and financial efforts on train engines, rail cars and day-to-day operations.

In addition, the railroad is expected to receive a $900,000 grant from the state Department of Economic and Employment Development to upgrade passenger coaches. The railroad also is seeking a $450,000 grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission, which allocates federal money to the region.

"We've always had to use Band-Aids and bubble gum to keep our operation together," said James Oberhaus, a member of the nonprofit railroad's board of directors and owner of a restaurant that benefits from the train's business. "I think this obviously shows a great commitment on the part of the state of Maryland. It's an investment in the future of tourism in Western Maryland."

The railroad, which makes its run between Cumberland and Frostburg several days a week from May through December, has been beset by financial problems since its inaugural season six years ago.

Last summer, the baseball strike exacerbated the railroad's financial problems because its owners were relying on about 10 excursions to baseball games in Baltimore and Pittsburgh to raise "substantial money," railroad President Edward Kemmet said. The railroad had to refund some $70,000 worth of tickets because of the strike, the Board of Public Works was told.

About 30,000 tourists ride the train each year. The train departs from downtown Cumberland, passing through breathtaking gaps in the mountains, through a tunnel and up rugged terrain to Frostburg. Before the return trip to Cumberland, passengers have time to eat and shop in Frostburg.

The Cumberland train station is one of the focal points of a $200 million effort to refurbish the city's downtown area.

State and local lawmakers in Western Maryland see the scenic train as a cornerstone for tourism in the region. Tourists riding the train last year added about $6 million to the regional economy.

"The Western Maryland Scenic Railroad is one of our greatest attractions and serves as a magnet to draw tourists to the region to stay, shop and spend money," said House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., an Allegany County Democrat and a backer of the railroad.

Mr. Kemmet said the state money would be used for operating expenses, to pay off debt, to buy two diesel engines, and to make track and other improvements, including enhancing scenic vistas along the train's run to Frostburg.

Buying and refurbishing used passenger cars will enable the railroad to offer charter trips and private excursions. He said the railroad plans to add a lounge car and air-conditioned cars. Some open cars will be retained for passengers who are lured to the excursions by the smell and sounds of a steam engine.

Mr. Oberhaus predicted that ridership will increase about 5 percent annually with the planned improvements, most of which should be completed by the end of the year. One-third of the train's ridership comes during its fall foliage trips.

As part of the agreement, local support also will increase, with Allegany County contributing $160,000 in the first two years and then $200,000 annually; Cumberland, $40,000 annually; and Frostburg, $30,000 annually.

Joseph Minnich of the Tourist Railway Association, a professional organization that represents tourist railroads, excursion operations and railway museums, said it's common for scenic railroads to be funded by a marriage of public and private money.

"It's not unusual for a public body to own a railroad right of way," he said. "As a general rule, the rationale used is that the train is a part of economic development as it relates to tourism in the area. Most tourist railroads tend to be high-profile attractions on one hand and quite affordable for families on the other hand."

But not everyone agrees with continued funding of the railroad.

"Frostburg has pumped money into the train for years, and we have nothing to show for it," said Bernard Coleman, a Frostburg city councilman. "I think Frostburg could use that money for tourism. That train is not paying for itself. The state may have money to give them, but we don't have that kind of money."

Mr. Oberhaus, who owns a restaurant at the Frostburg terminus, said the railroad has never had the proper capital to buy equipment and make improvements. Instead, the group has had to lease equipment, including diesel engines and passenger cars.

"It's an expensive way to do it," he said. "There's only a couple of scenic railroads in the U.S. that are profitable all by themselves. In other words, usually a local, state or federal government is supporting them."

The Board of Public Works also approved another Western Maryland deal involving Mr. Oberhaus. A group that includes him got state approval to mine coal deep beneath 498 acres in Potomac-Garrett State Forest in southern Garrett County.

In exchange for allowing Mr. Oberhaus' partners to lease the state land, the state is getting a 216-acre tract next to Savage River State Forest in northeastern Garrett County, mineral rights to another 2,800 ares in the forest and royalties from coal mined at the leased site.

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