1309’s difficult past – and prosperous future

Posted by John Hankey
on Wednesday, February 12, 2020

I have been a little shocked, and greatly dismayed. I am deep into my sixth decade of serious work in railroad preservation, and have never seen the kinds of unwarranted criticism, vitriol, and downright nastiness directed towards the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad and its project to return former C&O 2-6-6-2 No, 1309 to service. The railroad does not deserve it.

WMSR recently announced a campaign to raise the final few hundred thousand dollars needed to get the locomotive into operation. More modern servicing and support facilities will be the next phase, and will not be inexpensive. That is the reality of operating Big Steam in the 21st Century.

The initial response to the campaign has been encouraging. Generous individuals are responding with money and support. But some of the reaction has, once again, been mean spirited.

I see little reason for it. That isn’t the way railroad heritage worked for a very long time. The current level of hostility and incivility in our political culture seems to have bled into railway preservation, and that is a shame.

There are always legitimate questions and critiques. But too many people seem to reject the underlying assumption that well-intentioned individuals and organizations are trying to do the best work possible with the information and resources they have available.

Railroad heritage is a complex and fascinating field. But let’s face it—the risks are many, the outcomes are often uncertain, and the costs are unpredictable at best. If it takes five years rather than two to restore a locomotive planned to operate for 50 years, why the anger and angst?

I doubt that most of the critics fully understand the context of the 1309 project, and the other progress WMSR has been making. In the era of social media, the Internet, a 24-hour news cycle, and instant outrage, many have become too quick to judge, and too reluctant to understand.

Certainly mistakes were made. I do not suggest that WMSR is blameless. But the situation is not a hot mess. No one has been hurt. There is no whiff of misfeasance or malfeasance. No money (public or private) has been wasted or frittered away. On its technical merits, this is a splendid restoration carried out by some of the most skilled folks in the business.

And the Vision was bold, plausible, and strategic. It just didn’t get clearly communicated, or accurately budgeted. If it had, I doubt that WMSR would ever turn a wheel behind steam again.

That is the irony. WMSR could have envisioned a Diesel-powered future and turned its back on big steam locomotives hauling passenger trains up the Allegheny Front for the next 50 years or so. We all would have been poorer for it.

There are no crimes here, except for a former shop supervisor pilfering bronze driving box liners and selling them for scrap. Our screwed-up criminal justice system let him off with a slap on the wrist.

WMSR did not structure or manage the project as well as it should have. They know that, their bankers and political supporters know that, and even the primary contractors understand that more detailed planning should have informed cost estimates and scheduling.

But everything the restoration crews did needed to be done. You cannot shortcut the complete rehabilitation of a complex machine like this, especially when there were so many deeply hidden flaws and issues. Some of the largest and most respected railroad heritage institutions on the continent have had similar experiences.

This project has taken a toll on WMSR management and governance, all of whom are serious, dedicated, and have the best interests of the railroad as a priority. That extends to outside supporters who believe that this is a worthwhile project and game changer for heritage railroad operations.

Let me provide some context, and reiterate that these are delays, and not intentionally bad behavior. If it was, I would be first in line to offer critical opinions.

I can do so because, off and on since its inception 35 years ago, I have been involved in the overall WMSR project—usually as an outsider and loyal critic, but sometimes in the thick of things.

Bear in mind that this is a real railroad. It is subject to every constraint and regulation bedeviling its larger neighbor, CSX. WMSR’s operating regime and rules structure are as rigorous as any railroad on the continent. Its officers and crews are industry veterans with several hundred years of combined service.

WMSR is not, however, a commercial or for-profit entity. It is a public benefit redevelopment corporation--a not-for-profit 501(c)3, chartered by the legislature of the State of Maryland in the late 1980s. Its governing Board (comprising community leaders) serves without compensation. The project is entrepreneurial, but for the benefit of the region.

That gives it special status. It also means that there are multiple layers of accountability. Many eyes are watching WMSR, at local, state, and federal levels. WMSR routinely deals with the FRA and other federal agencies, two states, two counties, two cities, a dozen communities, another dozen colleague institutions, and all sorts of entities who think they have a dog in the fight. Some are helpful. Some are not.

WMSR was partly envisioned as a compliment to the “New” B&O Railroad Museum, the independent foundation created by the museum’s 1989 separation from CSX corporate ownership. The idea was to create a substantial heritage railroad to help bring tourism and development to Maryland’s Allegany County, which is deep in Appalachia and was suffering from the decline of its coal, industrial, and manufacturing-based economies. Chessie/CSX fully cooperated.

Fast forward a quarter century. By 2014, (several years into the Great Recession). WMSR had lost its footing. Early in 2016, John Garner—a seasoned short line railroad manager whom I deeply respect—became Executive Director of a railroad that was largely dysfunctional. It was in debt (with no local credit), politically in the doghouse, and in diminished physical condition.

By that point, the 1309 project was already underway. But it was hard to know what to do with it.

Under Garner’s leadership, the railroad entered what I called a “Survival Phase.” WMSR had seen rough times in the past, and more than once almost shut down. The first objective that bitter winter was simply to get trains running, make payroll, and put one foot in front of the other. Many railroad heritage projects in North America have similar histories.

It turned out to be a two-year ordeal of reestablishing trust, renewing connections, and struggling to earn every dollar it could. Garner needed to create a new vision for what WMSR could be, rather than what it had been.

That slowly transitioned into what I regard as a “Stabilization Phase. There were challenges.

In but one example, Allegany County—which owns the right-of-way in Maryland—was replacing an old sewer main alongside the WMSR tracks through the Narrows, a water gap in the mountains accommodating the B&O main line to Pittsburgh, Wills Creek, Old Route 40 (the original National Road from 1806), and WMSR. It is a crowded corridor.

The previous WMSR administration tried to impose stiff daily fees to provide flag protection per FRA rules. The argument was that WMSR was a railroad just like CSX across the valley. That did not sit well with the county. Politically, it was as boneheaded as any move I’ve ever seen made.

The first real pivot was early in Garner’s tenure, when he explained at a construction meeting that WMSR could flag its own trains. Or the contractor could do a short online course and designate one of its employees to do the flagging. WMSR would lend the contractor a railroad radio for the duration of the project.

That was a breakthrough. Things changed. You could feel the air flowing back into the meeting room.

Then there were the landslides. Later in 2016 (after heavy rains), a large crack a couple of hundred feet long appeared in the earth beside the tracks a few miles east of Frostburg, the railroad’s western terminus.

Soft coal had been mined there since the 1820s, and the original landscape was deeply covered by layers of coal mine waste called “gob.” It was black with the consistency of beach sand. When saturated with water, it had no structural integrity. After heavy rains that winter, the entire hillside was slumping downward.

State geologists immediately agreed that was Not a Good Thing, and that WMSR trains couldn’t get to Frostburg. The result was an abbreviated run that season, with trains halting at old No. 9 Switch. But the railroad still operated, and people understood.

The Maryland Department of Mines (based in Frostburg) quickly stepped up. A federal program (based on a small tax on every ton of coal mined in the U.S.) expedited the funding, and within months contractors were on site reprofiling the hill and making the railroad safe again.

A year later, another hillside a few miles east likewise began migrating down slope at the horseshoe curve at Woodcock Hollow. The culprit there was 100 million year old Appalachian shale that is unstable under the best of circumstances. The Western Maryland Ry. had roadbed trouble there since it first blasted the shelf out of the hillside in 1911.

This time, Allegany County stepped up, authorized a million dollars in bond funding, and expeditiously fixed both the railroad and Great Allegheny Passage Trail paralleling the WMSR main line for 11 miles. In each case, the underlying assumption was to make the railroad suitable for the 1309, and ensure the railroad’s continued existence.

Slowly, with the help of many people, WMSR regained strength. It began running more—and, more interesting—trains, and experimenting with special events. The equipment and operations had always been safe. But now they became more reliable and more attractive to passengers.

There were many other challenges. WMSR had to rebuild its staff from scratch, and found the money to provide decent wages with benefits. It clawed back into full compliance with AAR, FRA , and DoT requirements—no easy feat.

It worked with CSX to define a new relationship based on much more professional operations. One result of that was the recent CSX gift of five ca. 1970s coal cars (built at the massive C&O carshop at Raceland, Ky.) for WMSR’s photo freight trains.

            The railroad’s equipment was at best tired, and often simply worn out. Keeping decades-old undercar generators, obsolete air conditioning units, two elderly GP-30s, and an exhausted 1918 2-8-0 going had become a never-ending, wearying chore. By the time Garner came on the scene, the general operating plan was simply to make it through one more trip.

Garner started horse trading, improving WMSR’s fleet while finding appropriate homes for old WMSR cars. That recently brought two operable former B&O RDC cars to Cumberland in exchange for former N&W and Central of Georgia cars going south to the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum—their native region. That was a win-win.

A dozen new (to WMSR) passenger cars are now in the fleet, including everything from a power car and a former Ringling Brothers dorm car to open window coaches and very nice first class cars. A former Amtrak F40PH helps handle passenger trains. WMSR envisions a “50 Year Fleet” of classic equipment it can use for the next five decades.

Clearing lineside brush neglected for a decade has been a massive task. One example is the famous Helmstetter’s Curve site. Thirty years of uncontrolled brush is now gone, returning the vistas to their 1960s appearance.

The railroad’s governance likewise rose to the challenge. The Board now includes the Mayors of both Frostburg and Cumberland. Elected officials understood what was going on, and pitched in. Maryland State Senators and Delegates helped secure additional 1309 funding with the clear understanding that it represented an important economic development investment.

Along the way, John Garner secured state funding to replace the obsolete road crossings in downtown Cumberland and at Cash Valley Road, near Helmstetter’s Curve. That was a $2 million investment that brought WMSR into full compliance with current crossing safety standards.

WMSR found the money to replace 1500 ties at critical locations to make it safe to operate a big steam locomotive at more than 5 mph. That is a hard—and often, obscure—aspect of heritage railroading. Was that part of the overall 1309 project? I would suggest so.

The WMSR shops are just across the Potomac River in a former Western Maryland Railway facility at Ridgeley, West Virginia. Strict new environmental regulations there require improved coal handling, ash disposal and the general care of steam locomotives.

That will require WMSR to construct an approved facility for servicing the 1309 after each day’s run. That certainly isn’t a bad thing—but it was not part of the original 1309 operating plan, and adds about $300,000 to the total project cost.

In the stress of keeping the railroad alive and rebuilding so many other relationships and capabilities, it simply was not feasible to do a full stop and redesign the 1309 project, even while WMSR’s future came to depend on it. In hindsight, it may have been more practical to do a quick 1472-day boiler inspection on WMSR’s workhorse 2-8-0 No. 734.

But the 734 would have needed a thorough overhaul, too. A repaired 734 would not have offered the transformational opportunities the 1309 so compellingly did. Holding the long view in the face of short term challenges requires a bit of courage.

Five years into the future, all that will not matter. There will be a big, capable, reliable Mallet in regular passenger service on a mountain railroad within easy reach of 12 million potential riders. That is the ultimate economic calculation.

I can’t think of any other place on the continent where anyone—holding a ticket or not—will be able to get so close to a regularly operated locomotive of this size, or so easily chase and enjoy it a hundred scheduled days a year. Is there a better way to preserve steam operations and encourage the next couple of generations of railfans?

The Western Maryland Scenic Railroad needs to do a better job of explaining what is going on, and what it’s plan and vision are. It needs to describe its prospects for the future, and why it is one of the most interesting heritage operations on the continent. The 1309 Completion Campaign is part of that effort.

Communication has never been one of WMSR’s strong suits. But it is getting better.

I’ll also suggest that cynics and critics pause and better understand what has been done, and what is at stake. It isn’t fair to pass judgment based on rumor, innuendo, or what you don’t know. That is a biblical principle—and simple common sense.

Yes—getting the 1309 back in steam has been more complicated than anyone anticipated. But no one is getting rich or famous doing this. It represents the hard work and dedication of a great many people, and their hopes for a successful long term outcome.

Nothing washes away the bitter taste of short-term disappointment like long-term success. Once the 1309 is boiling water again, it will offer extraordinary railroad experiences to many people for a very long time. That is what we expect professional-grade railway preservation and heritage operations to accomplish.

Let’s all keep that in mind.

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