Analysis: tourist lines fall back on freight
2020 has not been a good year for tourist railways. The COVID-19 pandemic has closed some lines and forced others to operate at significantly reduced capacities. Surprisingly, there have been few casualties among the established ranks of the US tourist railways. Let’s take a look at how an immensely popular scenic railroad managed to cross.
John Smith, president of Elkins, W.Va.-based Durbin & Greenbrier Valley Railroad, sums up 2020 in one word: dismal. The railway operates the West Virginia Central (formerly Western Maryland), Cass Scenic Railroad and Durbin Rocket (formerly Chesapeake & Ohio Greenbrier River Branch) in West Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley Railroad (formerly Norfolk Southern) in Virginia. It carried 84,000 passengers in 2019, but saw that number drop to 22,000 in 2020. Of that number, approximately 14,000 rode on Cass Scenic and 8,000 on Durbin Rocket. The railroad’s flagship trains, the New Tygart Flyer and the Cheat Mountain Salamander, did not operate in 2020 due to COVID restrictions, reflecting the national trend. When epidemiologists learned that COVID spreads most easily in enclosed spaces, like passenger cars with sealed windows, even die-hard train drivers stayed away. Railroads that offered open-pit cars, like Cass Scenic and Durbin Rocket, fared better, although they still saw a sharp drop in ridership.
Durbin & Greenbrier Valley Railroad shares a big advantage with a few other tourist train operators (notably Strasburg Rail Road in Pennsylvania): Freight traffic accounts for all of Shenandoah Valley Railroad’s revenue and a sizeable portion of the parent company. Other railways have made money by stocking freight cars for Class I railways and private owners, but only a handful of them have viable freight operations to fall back on.
Smith says West Virginia Central moves about 800 cars per year to and from the Appalachian & Ohio Railroad (P&L Transportation Inc .; former Baltimore & Ohio and CSX Transportation) interchange at Tygart Junction, W.Va., for customers in and around Elkins. WVC operates two freight trains (both referred to as the Belington Local) each week, usually during daylight hours, and this frequency increases when road salt shipments begin in June or July. Often times, the main engines of two or three older EMD locomotives (F7, GP9, and BL2) put on quite a show by moving 20 or more loads on the 28-mile upgrade from Tygart Junction to Elkins. On particularly heavy traffic days, teams add locomotives.
Much of West Virginia Central’s freight traffic goes to the JF Allen Limestone Aggregate Quarry just east of Elkins, which includes a road salt storage and distribution facility that serves 30 sites in the department. West Virginia highways in 16 counties. The quarry also provides outgoing loads of stone and aggregate. Elkins Metal Recycling, which operates a busy scrapyard in Elkins, is another reliable customer; and other local industries, online and offline, provide inbound or outbound traffic.
Freight crews are called out of the WVC Belington yard, approximately 15 miles northeast of Elkins. All freight movements are controlled by a dispatcher located in Philippi, West Virginia, 27 miles northeast of Elkins but only 6 miles from Tygart Junction, on radio frequency 160.455.
Smith says there is potential for additional freight activity in the area served by West Virginia Central. American Industrial Partners operates a huge wood flooring manufacturing plant along the Dailey branch in South Beverly, 9 miles south of Elkins. This could be the destination of the log loads and the source of the outgoing finished wood products. A few years ago United Coals subsidiary Carter Roag Coal Co. announced plans to open a metallurgical coal mine on Roaring Creek near Ellamore, 30 kilometers east of Elkins; it could supply hundreds of loads of export coal every year. However, this development is currently at a standstill.
West Virginia Central’s predecessor, Western Maryland Railway, stretched as far south as Webster County, West Virginia, and once served dozens of sawmills, coal mines, tanneries, and even chemical factories. By the late 1970s, only two sources of trafficking remained: the Linan Mines near Cheat Bridge and the Hickory Lick Mine in Elk Springs, both of which produced valuable metallurgical coal. By 1994, these mines had closed and CSX sold the old Western Maryland runway to the state of West Virginia. West Virginia Central now operates with a connection to Cass Scenic Railroad at Spruce, and although the track beyond is more or less intact, it is isolated by a gigantic washout. Smith says no online industry beyond that point would consider rail service. Any potential traffic would have to be transhipped, a complicated and expensive process.
While tourists still account for the bulk of operator Durbin & Greenbrier Valley’s income, freight accounts for a large and growing share of total income. Every business aspires to a balanced and diversified profit base and, for DGVR, that means more freight revenue to support that provided by passengers. The company has come a long way in a relatively short time and is poised to reap the rewards of patient and vigilant marketing efforts. Durbin & Greenbrier Valley relies on a well-maintained first generation diesel power supply for WVC and Shenandoah Valley freight operations. Combined with a large stable of steam locomotives serving Cass Scenic and the Durbin Rocket, this multi-faceted organization is a treat for fans who enjoy watching and photographing classic diesels and steam power.