Md. Midland eyes rail deal opportunity CSX, Norfolk Southern agreement could open 42 miles of track

Expansion to Baltimore?

Move would allow start of excursion operation as sideline

March 05, 1997|By Donna R. Engle | Donna R. Engle,SUN STAFF

With railroad giants CSX and Norfolk Southern Corp. apparently poised to end their battle to take over Conrail, the Maryland Midland Railway Co. hopes to pick up some of the spoils.

At stake for the Union Bridge-based rail company is 17 miles of track between Highfield and Hagerstown in Washington County and the right to use 25 miles of track between Glyndon and Baltimore -- CSX lines that Maryland Midland President Paul D. Denton has coveted for years.

Maryland Midland hauls freight on 65 miles of track between Glyndon and Highfield.

Expansion into Baltimore would mean the hiring of 50 workers and the purchase of up to 15 locomotives and 400 cars. In addition, Denton said, it would allow his company to start an excursion train -- a lucrative sideline that ended with the 1995 closure of the popular EnterTRAINment line.

Even if the deal for CSX and Norfolk Southern to divide Conrail's 11,000 miles of track goes through, Denton cautions that his proposal is a toy train among locomotives. Under the best of circumstances, it would take a year or more to get the excursion trains running, Denton said.

"I don't know any more than anyone knows who reads the papers," he said.

Meanwhile, he is watching the negotiations closely in the belief that an agreement could leave CSX favorably disposed to Maryland Midland's offer.

The sale and rights acquisition could help facilitate federal Surface Transportation Board approval of the Conrail sale agreement, Denton said. The reason: Maryland Midland service to Hagerstown would give Norfolk Southern access to a direct east-west route between Baltimore and Hagerstown, allowing it to compete with CSX in the region.

Maryland Midland officials haven't lured the upscale excursion train line operator they sought after the EnterTRAINment line closed amid mounting debts in June 1995.

The excursion line, which owned its locomotives and cars but leased the right to use Maryland Midland's tracks, left some ticket holders without promised rides or refunds. It owed more than $500,000 to more than 100 creditors when it went out of business. Its assets were sold at auction for $94,000.

Denton's idea is to form a new investor-owned line, which would provide financing for the capital-intensive project. Corporations or institutions that bought into the line would have the right to use it for meetings, conferences or excursions, he said.

"I've had corporations come to me," he said. "You know, if you want to get people's attention, you take them out on the train and stop the train for an hour, have a meeting."

Denton said the line could offer sightseeing trips or other tours.

County tourism director Barbara Beverungen said an excursion train could be an attraction for meeting planners, who always look for unusual sites.

"From a tourism standpoint, it would be very welcome," she said. "I miss the [excursion] train. It was a good product to market."

An EnterTRAINment Line co-owner, Steven Hamilton, estimated in 1995 that the line had about 40,000 customers a year and generated $1 million in revenue.

The Western Maryland Scenic Railroad, which takes tourists between Frostburg and Cumberland in Allegany County, has more than 35,000 riders a year and generates an average $1.5 million in revenue, according to the Allegany County tourism bureau.

"It's a strong product to market the county as a destination," said tourism bureau manager Natalie Chabot. "It's one of the hooks we have that attract people."

Pub Date: 3/05/97

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