Rebuffed train operator may turn to York Co., Pa. Competition possible for Maryland Midland

January 24, 1996|By Donna R. Engle | Donna R. Engle,SUN STAFF

An excursion train operator who was rejected by Maryland Midland Railway Co. may soon be running a competing train in York County, Pa., before the Union Bridge railroad finds a replacement for the defunct EnterTRAINment Line.

PAul D. Denton, Maryland Midland's presidentm, said he is not worried about competition between the dinner excursion service planned in York County by Ken Bitten, president of New Jersey-based Classic Rail Cars Inc., and an excursion line that has begun negotiations to run a similar service using Maryland Midland's tracks and facilities.

The EnterTRAINment Line, which ran dinner trains and special events such as Halloween mystery rides on Maryland Midland tracks between Westminster and Highfield, Pa., closed in May with more than $500,000 in debts, including unpaid amusement taxes and interest.

Mr. Bitten's service and any new dinner train over Maryland Midland tracks would tap the Baltimore-Washington market, but in different ways, Mr. Denton said.

Mr. Bitten "has a rail buff, rail fan shoestring operation," he said.

Mr. Denton said he wishes Mr. Bitten well but that his proposal to replace the EnterTRAINment line locally wasn't what Maryland Midland officials wanted.

The excursion train operator MMID is negotiating with "is very upscale, a four-star operation," Mr. Denton said. He declined to identify the prospective new operator.

Mr. Bitten has an eye on the potential competition, but he pointed out that the Baltimore-Washington area "is a huge population base. We're concerned, but at this point there's enough interest and enthusiasm that we're going to pursue it anyway."

If Maryland Midland signs with Seattle-based Spirit of Washington, as has been rumored, it probably will tap more heavily into the wealthier Washington market, Mr. Bitten said.

Mr. Bitten said he is considering charging $39 a ticket for dinner and trip on his York excursion train.

The Spirit of Washington's owners have declined to comment. For dinner and an excursion ride from Renton to the Columbia Winery in Woodinville, both near Seattle, it charges $57 for regular seating and $69 for dome seating.

Mr. Bitten said he would like to have trains running by Memorial Day weekend. Catherine Case, coordinator for the York County Rail Trail Authority, said that date is probably too optimistic.

The authority wants to get trains moving, she said, but "it's a long process," She said no contract has been drawn up yet between the York County government, which owns the rail line and right of way, and Mr. Bitten, who plans to incorporate his new rail service under the name Northern Central Railway.

Ms. Case said Mr. Bitten has submitted a business operation plan but that the authority has not asked for a financial statement.

Mr. Bitten disavowed any connection with The EnterTRAINment Line, whose creditors are awaiting disposition of its assets in Carroll County Circuit Court. A York County newspaper incorrectly reported that his service would use the EnterTRAINment Line name, he said.

"Other than the fact that we own a couple of cars from that line, we have no connection with that company," Mr. Bitten said.

He said Northern Central Railway Inc. consists of himself as president and George Warner, former chief mechanic on the EnterTRAINment Line, as vice president. He said he is meeting with potential investors this week.

Mr. Bitten said he has gotten an enthusiastic response in Pennsylvania and was happy to learn that New Freedom, where he is moving 12 cars for storage and refurbishing, doesn't have an admissions and amusement tax.

The EnterTRAINment Line executives blamed the line's demise on a 1995 Maryland Tax Court decision requiring the line to pay more than $500,000 in unpaid amusement taxes to Westminster and Union Bridge. More than 500 creditors filed court claims after the line closed.

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