Scenic railroad may be running out of steam

Funding cuts could doom beloved Western Md. line

February 24, 2005|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

The Western Maryland Scenic Railroad, considered one of the country's top tourist trains, will haul its last load of passengers from Cumberland to Frostburg this year -- and a budget cut may mean the end of this historic train ride through the mountains altogether.

Officials are holding out hope that the full-size 1916 steam locomotive can find a different rail to ride on, but those with the railroad say it will be difficult to find an affordable alternative to shutting down. State transportation officials say there is still an opportunity to find a new route, though it would be much shorter and a very different experience.

"A lot of people are going to miss this thing," said Doug Beverage, chief executive officer of the railroad.

Money is one factor -- a longtime state Department of Transportation subsidy for track maintenance runs out at the end of the year, and a recent study says that in the next five years, repairs of up to $25 million would be needed to keep the train operating on its current route.

Another issue is competition with a hiking and biking trail under construction that will eventually run 415 miles from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C., with one leg mirroring the railroad from Cumberland to Frostburg. It will bring an estimated 300,000 tourists a year -- a percentage of that to the Allegany County portion.

"The trail is the clear winner, a proven winner," state Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan said yesterday. The railroad hasn't proved to be financially viable, he said.

Meanwhile, officials were growing concerned about the wisdom of having the trail and railroad share space, including the 914-foot Brush Tunnel. Shutting the railroad down there would mean that officials could save $3 million that was to be spent on safety measures for joint use of the tunnel.

"When you put a train and hikers and bikers through a tunnel, you have to be concerned about safety," said Barbara Buehl, executive director of the Allegany County Chamber of Commerce.

The scenic railroad, an excursion that runs from May through December, with leaf-peeping trips in October making it the most popular month, has operated on one-time Western Maryland Railway tracks since 1989.

The vistas are breathtaking, with steep mountain climbs and sharp curves as the train chugs from a recently renovated station in Cumberland to a historic depot 16 miles away in Frostburg, where the train is placed on a turntable and visitors can watch it repositioned for the trip back. The attraction is a major anchor of Cumberland's $57 million downtown redevelopment project called Canal Place.

It is considered one of the top 10 tourist trains in the country in terms of the thrill of the ride, said Rob McGonigal, editor of Classic Trains magazine, a quarterly publication based in Milwaukee. "A lot of rail fans like to hear the locomotive working at its hardest," he said.

There are several dozen tourist trains in the nation, but few are using steam locomotives anymore, he said.

"Steam locomotives are such a part of the American psyche, almost like sailing ships and baseball and Conestoga wagons," he said.

The railroad, though run by a nonprofit group, is subsidized by the state, county and the two cities it links. The rest of its $1.4 million annual budget comes from ticket sales. The railroad is debt-free, said Jim Stafford, president of its board. Operating costs might be covered, Flanagan said, but maintenance is not.

The options for an alternative route are limited. The only other tracks in the area belong to CSX Corp., which uses them for freight. Getting track rights is possible but could prove difficult, officials said.

"It's either that or construct some tracks somewhere else," said Beverage. "If we can't maintain what we have, how are we going to afford new tracks?"

One possible trip could be a six-mile journey to the Allegany County fairgrounds, railroad officials said, though it's unclear if that would be cost-effective because fares might have to be lowered.

Flanagan says he thinks a shorter trip would encourage more people to make it. He also said the state plans to build a boat launch at the fairgrounds for kayaking, rafting and trout fishing for an added incentive to travel there.

"We don't want to see it go, but it's tough financial times," said James J. Stakem, president of the Allegany County Board of Commissioners. Allegany County gives the railroad $170,000 a year, while the state's maintenance subsidy ran $250,000 for the current fiscal year and will be $120,000 through the end of 2005.

At the peak of its season, the scenic railroad runs trains of up to 13 cars at a time, Stafford said. The cars themselves are in high demand -- the railroad has rented them out for events such as the Super Bowl, the Masters and the Kentucky Derby. Locally, the railroad runs dinner train excursions, murder mysteries, Halloween trips and the North Pole Express for children at Christmastime.

Cumberland to Frostburg is "one of the few places where the Western Maryland track is still intact," said Leo Armentrout, a board member with the Western Maryland Railway Historical Society. "We don't want to see it go away by any means."

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