20 questions for John Garner at Western Maryland Scenic Railroad about the restoration of 2-6-6-2 No. 1309

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Western Maryland Scenic Railroad’s restoration of 2-6-6-2 No. 1309, the last steam locomotive Baldwin produced for domestic service in 1949, has been an on-going struggle for four years since its acquisition from the B&O Railroad Museum. The railroad and the project have faced significant challenges, including landslides, funding, employee theft of unique parts, and others. In the last six months, the project surged ahead with a new burst of funding that produced a steam test of the boiler and major wheel work. As it draws to a conclusion, there is still more money to be raised but the end is in sight: A Mallet in the East operating on a regular basis on a 17-mile mountain railroad. Finishing No. 1309 would yield an incredible bounty of Big Steam across the country. With 1309 in the East, Union Pacific’s Big Boy 4-8-8-4 No. 4014 in the West, and privately-owned 2-4-4-2 Skookum on the Pacific Coast, 2019 is shaping up to be the Year of the Articulated. We posed 20 questions to Western Maryland Scenic General Manager John Garner. Here’s what he told Trains.

1.What’s the current status of the restoration?

Garner: The current status of the 1309 restoration program consists of the final assembly. We have had two successful steam tests which permits us to move to the next steps. Within the next few days the locomotive will be re-wheeled. As we discuss this, the lagging and boiler jacketing is going back onto the locomotive. We are currently working on the new airbrake system, spring rigging, brake rigging, rod brasses, frame bushing, and a new lube oil system

2. How much money is left to raise?

Garner: We still need to raise an additional $300,000 to complete the full restoration. We are down to the last 12.5 percent of what has turned out to be a $2.4 million project. We are so close now so that we can taste the steam and coal soot. We have come so far, and we are now so close. All we need is a little help from a lot of people out there.

3. Once the money is in hand, then what?

Garner: The engine could be operational for test runs by late February if the funding is secured. Our contractor, Gary Bensman of Diversified Rail Services, says we are at a 75 percent complete status. It must be noted that this locomotive was in very, very poor condition when the project was started. The locomotive was last used in 1957 and sat outside for 60 years in the elements. The other frequently overlooked issue was the 1980’s asbestos abatement program. When No. 1309 went through the abatement process, the contractor was brutal to the locomotive and not considering a full preservation effort. A cutting torch was used frequently to remove bolts that held the jacketing onto the locomotive among other appliances. We literally have been using photographs to identify what appliances went where on the locomotive. In addition to local machine shops running behind on projected completion dates, our regional location also affected parts manufacturing. The larger parts of the locomotive had to be shipped out to various parts of the country.

4. What’s being done to raise the money?

Garner: Fund raising continues. In early November, Tristan Gray, a young 5 year-old, asked is friends for donations to the 1309 Restoration Program versus birthday presents. Tristan was able to collect $1,000 for the 1309. In mid-November, we hosted a “Whistle Blow – Static Steam Test and Dinner.” We had 32 donors come out to support the event. That evening, the donors had the opportunity dine and ask questions of Gary Bensman and myself. We rolled out the 1309 Club as well. I am delighted to share that we have a half dozen members signed up for the 1309 Club as of Nov. 30. We are looking for a total of 200 people to donate $1,309 and help finish the job.

5. Can you break down the last part of the funding?

Garner: This money is broken down into the following categories: (a) final assembly labor, $78,000 and (b) replacement of loss items, $171,500, (c) a coal dock/ash pit that is compliant with West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection regulation.

6. Break down the work for us, too, please?

Garner: The locomotive still needs to be re-wheeled. Once that occurs, the locomotive is weeks away from full assembly. We have been slowed down in that progress because of the holidays along with machine shops not being able to keep on schedule. Remember, it is more than just adding wheels under the frame; the loss we experienced earlier this year [due to employee theft] has had a tremendous impact on the project. We needed to remake the parts that were a part of the loss. We were still discovering missing parts as late as October.

7. The original plan called for the engine to be overhauled for $800,000. Now the cost is $2.4 million. What do you make of that?

Garner: The original budget was unrealistic.

8. What happened?

Garner: When WMSR originally applied for and received grant money for the project, the full comprehension of how the grant could be used was not understood. Maryland’s grant guidelines stipulate that the funds could not be used to pay the grantee for work on a project; only state approved contractors. The only option was to search for a steam locomotive rebuilder as a contractor. A great deal was learned on how grants work. For instance, all invoices were received by Western Maryland Scenic Railroad were submitted to the State for (1) approval and (2) direct payment by the state. WMSR did not control the payments. We simply submitted invoices for direct payment by the state. The state did reject many invoices as the submitted invoices were not meeting the guidelines. For instance, the air and acetylene used to torch off rusted bolts was not covered by the grant. Those gases were considered to be consumables and therefore not permitted to be paid by the state’s grant. The most important reason that contractors — Diversified Rail Services — was brought into the project was to ensure the full compliance of the restoration program along with ensuring a quality rebuild was performed. WMSR does not have a skilled steam team on staff.

9. Could you load coal and drop ashes on the engine in Maryland, at least temporarily?

Garner: The guidelines from the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection are not unreasonable or unrealistic. We do have a plan and budget, as noted above, in place to construct such a facility. There really is no convenient place on the Maryland side to load coal or remove ash.

10. A lot of parts went missing when an employee stole them and sold them to a scrapper. Is there any chance for restitution to cover this?

Garner: We are unable to answer since the case is ongoing.

11. What’s the vision for the finished locomotive?

Garner: Once completed, No. 1309 will be used “as often and as much as possible based on economic sense” – our goal is to keep it in regular and frequent service. We are looking at expanding the schedule when the locomotive comes on line. Ideally, like the early days of Western Maryland 2-8-0 No. 734, we would like to offer steam two excursions on Saturdays and Sundays with the addition of the all diesel “Evening Paradise Dinner Trains” on Saturday nights. Our dinner trains usually have specific themes and we are very proud of this full service endeavor.

12. There’s a problem with the locomotive reaching the turntable in Frostburg. What’s the solution there?

Garner: Basically, the curve and current track elevations will damage the locomotive. The trackage in Frostburg will need to be realigned along with the gradient for the locomotive to operate safely to the turntable.  Allegany County owns the right-of-way.  Any improvements to the rail line must be approved by the county.  We cannot use grant monies, at this time, to make improvements as state grant monies cannot be used on county owned property.

13. What can you tell us about the presentation of the locomotive’s appearance?

Garner: The engine will be lettered for the Western Maryland because that is what we prefer. The locomotive is not Chesapeake & Ohio and it is not Western Maryland; it is a Western Maryland Scenic Railroad locomotive. Of course, should the situation arise, the locomotive can be re-lettered for another road.

14. How’s the railroad doing overall?

Garner: The railroad is doing well. We celebrated our 30th anniversary this year.  That is a huge accomplishment in the lines of heritage railway operations.  I am very proud of projects we have completed since my administration began.  During the late fall of 2018, we were voted the number sone spot to be with a date on Saturday night by Maryland’s Tourism reviews.  Currently, we are operating the Christmas City Express trains for the holiday season. We have our schedule posted until May on the www.wmsr.com website. For the third year, we will be operating all year! The schedule includes our ever-popular themed Evening Paradise Dinner Trains, along with other specialty trains, from now until Spring. Allegany County is beautiful year-round.

15. What’s your thinking about the economic impact of the steam locomotive on the community?

Garner: We fully believe the economic impact will be huge. We know what Western Maryland Scenic No. 734 brought to the region in the early 1990s. We know that with our dinner train program alone, we are bringing guests into the region and we know that 98 percent of our dinner guests stay overnight. Our guests are spending monies on items from souvenirs to fuel to food. We want all of our neighbors to benefit from the WMSR’s steam program. We all win then.

16. How can Trains readers help make No. 1309 in steam a reality?

Garner: The enthusiast community can continue to support this project by continuing to send in donations. One can do that on the web through a link on our website or one can mail in a check or money made payable to the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad. On the memo line, the check needs to say “1309 Restoration Program.” Keep in mind, one can still sponsor parts on the locomotive and we also have the 1309 Club. For more information, send an email directly to trainsmaster@wmsr.com.

17. What’s the support been like so far?

Garner: Support for No. 1309 has come from all over the world. I sincerely appreciate those supporters and donors that send in letters of support or that ask questions. I take the time to pen a quick note in reply to each donation. I answer the questions with sincere and honest answers. I am trying to work as transparent as I possibly can.  I am so humbled by the kind letters I am receiving... the “keep your head up” to the “thank you for continuing the work;” continues to encourage me through the challenges.

18. Where do you see the railroad in five years?

Garner: Before I answer this question, we need to take a moment and remember the late Jack Showalter.  It was his Allegany Central that brought steam to this railroad and actually built the draw for the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad.  His vision of keeping steam alive on ex-Western Maryland Railway mainline trackage was incredible.  It takes a strong constitution to be in this business and Jack Showalter demonstrated that.  It was his “steam dream” that brought the concept of acquiring a steam locomotive (No. 734) to realization.  Building on that foundation, within the next five years, it is my hope that the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad will have an enhanced heritage rail excursion and experience program. With the fully operational No. 1309 under steam, it is our hope that we can start the restoration of No. 734.  We would like to have two operational steam locomotives working the mountain. We are looking to enhance the dinner train operation as well. As I have shared, we do what Amtrak is starting to give up on: we store, prepare, cook and serve fresh meals onboard the train. Within the next year alone, we are going to implement open air cars for the 1309. I want to see Western Maryland Scenic grow into a working heritage rail museum.

19. What have you learned from this experience that would be beneficial for the preservation community to know?

Garner: I have learned a great deal from this restoration program. Before starting any restoration program, a realistic examination – a fully educated, real world estimate of what the project will cost needs to be performed. We need to ask ourselves the questions, as I shared at the Heritage Rail Alliance convention in November, “Could we do the restoration?” along with “Should we do the restoration?” Our heritage rail yards are full of potential projects – the hard question is “what benefits will the restoration bring to the overall program?” I inherited the 1309 Restoration Program from the last administration and my team will finish the restoration. It has been a huge challenge. One of the other lessons I learned: install security cameras.  It will not only keep an “eye on things” but also record the restoration process.

20. Final word?

Garner: As a parting thought, we all have agreed: whatever it takes – it will be worth it to finish No. 1309. We are fully 100 percent behind the locomotive being a show piece. It has been a long, hard road – we have overcome each obstacle and we intend on finishing the locomotive to be the great benefit we fully knew it would be.  I am very proud to be a part of such an incredible opportunity to bring a steam locomotive of this caliber back to life.

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