West Virginia's Potomac Eagle tourist line in new hands, but will there be steam?

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Potomac Eagle F7 No. 722 in B&O colors leads a photo special.
Chase Gunnoe
ROMNEY, W.Va. — One of the East’s best-known tourist railroads has been sold to one of the nation’s top freelance steam locomotive rebuilders. But does that mean there will be steam for the first time at West Virginia’s diesel-powered Potomac Eagle?

It is possible, but not right away, says Robert Franzen, who along with his wife, Celeste, purchased the railroad through their 2018 company, Railroad Investment Corporate Holdings, from Eagle Cañon Passenger Car Co. Eagle Cañon has operated the tourist line since 1991. Franzen spoke with Trains Newswire by phone Wednesday morning from California, where he is finishing contract work on Niles Canyon Railway’s Clover Valley 2-6-6-2T No. 4.

“I am a steam guy, and steam has been my big thing,” he said. “Our plan is to get in there, see if we can boost ridership and revenues, and then think about adding steam. Steam is expensive. But there are a lot of locomotives out there, and I’m a creative guy. Maybe we can strike a deal with a locomotive out there.”

The railroad carried about 15,000 passengers last year on scheduled trains and another 4,500 on Christmas specials. In the past, it has carried as many as 22,000 passengers in one year.

Franzen is well-known as a life-long steam mechanic whose long resume includes chief mechanical officer of the Grand Canyon Railway and vice president and general manager at Great Smoky Mountains Railroad. In addition to Niles Canyon, he’s currently doing contract boiler work on Yreka Western 2-8-2 No. 19 at Age of Steam Roundhouse in Ohio and Alaska Railroad 2-8-0 No. 557 in Anchorage. He also does contract work on Iowa Interstate’s Chinese-built QJ-type 2-10-2 engine that is set to run in May, June, and July.

The Potomac Eagle is a scenic train operation on state-owned tracks that parallel the South Branch of the Potomac River. The railroad’s signature is eagle watching from the train in a remote and inaccessible (other than by rail) valley called the Trough. Tracks run 52.5 miles from Petersburg to Green Spring, where the railroad ties into CSX. Normal excursions are 3-hours and cover 35 miles round trip, but occasional trips cover other parts of the line and some are as long as 8-hours and cover 76 miles.

The state of West Virginia purchased the railroad in 1978 and regular tourist trains began in 1991 after a series of photo specials in the late 1980s. Freight operations are run as needed on weekdays.

Robert and Celeste are president and vice president, respectively of the new company that owns the tourist operation. Robert is also president and owner of Steam Services of America, a company that he founded in 2001 to do freelance work on steam locomotives. Celeste’s expertise is in marketing events and entertainment.

Franzen, a Clemson University graduate with a degree in mechanical engineering, has held memberships on numerous boards within the industry and currently sits on the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and the National Board of Inspection committees for locomotive boilers.

In a recent Hampshire Review article, West Virginia State Rail Authority board member Dave Pancake of Romney said he was excited for Franzen to purchase Potomac Eagle. “The survival of the Potomac Eagle is very important to our area. It has added an awful lot to the notoriety of Hampshire County as a tourist attraction,” Pancake said.

Rodney Matheny will continue as operations manager, while Jodi Burnsworth will continue as office and sales manager.

NEWSWIRETrains News Wire

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