Railroad rides out funding setbacks

Tourist train returns after ridership boost

April 17, 2006|By JOANNA DAEMMRICH | JOANNA DAEMMRICH,SUN REPORTER

Rescued by a surge in ticket sales, the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad is getting ready for another tourist season, having survived a state cut that threatened to end the historic train ride through the mountains.

The old-fashioned tourist train, one of the last in the nation to be pulled by a steam locomotive, almost reached the end of the line last year. State officials stopped a $250,000 annual subsidy, refused to provide even a more modest sum - and warned of the risks of running beside a new bike path.

Now, however, the scenic railroad has made a turnaround. Beginning May 5, it will resume the breathtaking excursions along a steep mountain route between Cumberland and Frostburg that have led the railroad to be considered one of the top 10 tourist trains in the nation.

Not only has the railroad returned to profitability, thanks to a 33 percent increase in ridership last year, but it has planned a Thomas the Tank Engine event to cap off its weekend tours, murder mysteries and dinner trains.

"We'll still be able to run," said Doug Beverage, the general superintendent, who credits last year's "remarkable turnout," including tens of thousands of rail fans from across the country who feared it could be their last chance to see the railroad's 1916 Baldwin locomotive. "We're hoping for another good year."

Equally important, Beverage said, is that rail operators figured out safety precautions with the state that will permit the train to run parallel to the bike path under construction.

For a depressed but picturesque region that has tried for more than a decade to reinvent itself as a tourist destination, the railroad's survival is a relief. In Cumberland, the railroad is a major anchor of a multimillion-dollar redevelopment project called Canal Place. It's also beloved by many townspeople, who look for the locomotive's billowing smoke plumes on weekends.

"It's very good news," said Cumberland Mayor Lee N. Fiedler, who said the train contributed to "a tremendous increase in tourism," which grew 30 percent last year.

Cumberland is preparing to listen for the train's long whistle once more even as it's about to celebrate the completion of several other long-awaited attractions. In mid-May, the dried-up C&O Canal will be filled with water, a project that's been stalled for years. It will feature authentic replicas of mule-drawn barges.

By late fall, the state expects to complete its section of the Allegheny Highlands Trail, a hiker-biker path that starts in Pittsburgh, 150 miles away. The last link, a nine-mile stretch, will cost $3 million to build and run parallel to the train's route along the old Western Maryland Railway tracks.

Once finished, the bike path will stretch from Pittsburgh to Washington. State planners anticipate it will bring as many as 300,000 bicyclists a year. Already, tens of thousands of bikers come to Cumberland to bike along the flat, shaded towpath that runs beside the C&O Canal for 184.5 miles into Georgetown.

The scenic railroad, an excursion that runs from May through December, with fall foliage making October the most popular month, has operated since 1989. It was among the tourist ventures pushed by former House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., an Allegany County Democrat who persuaded the state to invest millions into creating a tourism industry in his struggling western district.

Though run by a nonprofit, the railroad has long been subsidized by the state, county and two cities it links. The state gave it $6 million over the years. The rest of the railroad's $1.4 million annual budget comes from ticket sales.

When the last $112,000 of its state subsidy was gone, some feared the railroad would shut down. Instead, it prospered; 40,000 tickets were sold, up from the usual 30,000. The scenic railroad hopes to keep the momentum going through increased publicity - and a late-September appearance by Thomas the Tank Engine, a full-size replica of the popular toy locomotive.

By then, the train is likely to pass bicyclists. Initially, state transportation officials feared there would be too many dangerous intersections. Bikers and hikers will cross the rail line at a half-dozen points - and share the 914-foot Brush Tunnel.

But state and rail officials have concluded the two can coexist.

Warning signs and other safety signals will be posted, said Bill Atkinson, a state planner who is vice president of the Allegheny Highlands Trail. Rest areas will be built on both sides of the tunnel, he said. In most places, the train runs on a higher grade than the bike path; where it comes within 10 feet, fences will be installed.

"There used to be two trains that ran side by side on those tracks," Atkinson said. "If two trains could get through the tunnel, we think a train and a bike will fit."

joanna.daemmrich@baltsun.com

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