Operational audit of Western Maryland Scenic cites track and rolling stock concerns

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Workers install the drivers on No. 1309 in the front engine earlier this month.
Tishia Boggs
CUMBERLAND, Md. — An operations audit of Western Maryland Scenic Railroad cites issues with the railroad which could lead to speed restrictions or a shut down if they are not addressed over the next several years.

According to an operational audit report prepared by Stone Consulting, Inc., in Warren, Pa., Western Maryland Scenic Railroad faces serious infrastructure and equipment issues. Top among these are rapidly deteriorating crossties, wear on equipment, and landslides, which are creeping closer to the right-of-way. The audit, which was performed in 2018 and completed and released to the public late last week, was commissioned at the request of Allegeny County, which owns the right-of-way over which Western Maryland Scenic Railroad operates, after WMSR requested financial assistance from the county with maintenance issues.

Earlier this summer Allegany County and the cities of Cumberland and Frostburg agreed to spend $90,000 for tie replacement.

Western Maryland Scenic Railroad Executive Director John Garner tells Trains News Wire that he has not yet had a chance to review the audit report with the railroad's board of directors and is unable to comment at this time. "The report was actually released to the public before it was released to us ... so we're about a week behind the train world at this point," he says. Garner says he will comment on the report once he has reviewed it with the railroad's board.

The report says ties at joints were mostly in satisfactory condition, but intermediate ties, located in between rail joints, were of particular concern due to their rapid deterioration which could result in the rail moving out of gauge. That, the report says, was the reason for 10-mph slow orders imposed upon some sections of the railroad. The report says there is no more than a two-to-five-year window before enough ties have deteriorated enough to slow the railroad down to 10 mph over most of the line.

The report adds, however, that the railroad is not unsafe. The report says the railroad has benefited from the legacy Western Maryland mainline trackage over which it operates. The line is covered by 132-pound rail which compensates for some of the effects of deteriorating ties. “This should not be interpreted as that the railroad is now unsafe, but should be considered to be fair advance warning that the track is inexorably inching closer to being slowed down to a crawl over longer and longer sections," the report says. "This will impact schedule times, operating costs, and visitor impressions as the train runs slower and slower and the trip becomes even longer from Cumberland to Frostburg and return.” Stone Consulting recommended in the report that the railroad should consider a tie replacement program over the next five years in which it replaces approximately 2,500 ties per year, and that the job should be handled by a contractor.

The report also called out drainage issues and landslides as concerns. The report says an "unusual" amount of time had passed since the railroad cleared ditches along the track, that the railroad lacks equipment to do the job, and lacks employees and volunteers. Only one employee is qualified to perform track maintenance. Brush is encroaching on the line and adjacent bicycle trail. The report says brush is blocking the view of some of the most scenic and well-known locations along the line including the Narrows and famous Helmsetter's Curve. The reappearance of landslides along the railroad line is already encroaching upon the bike trail and will eventually affect the rail line. Slips and slides have already resulted in slow orders, the report says.

The report relates many of the problems currently facing WMSR with the ongoing restoration of Chesapeake & Ohio 2-6-6-2 steam locomotive No. 1309, which has been a cash-draining venture for the railroad. The report says the railroad suffered from the administration of a grant which prohibited the use of staff employees, forcing the railroad to commit money and resources to the project rather than to other areas, including maintenance of way. The report says the 1309 project, which is now being funded by an anonymous third-party donor, has affected virtually all aspects of the railroad. “The restoration of locomotive 1309 has become the trigger episode of much of the concerns of the entire status and future of the railroad," the report says. "It would initially appear, on the surface, to be both drastically off intended schedule and significantly over budget and has created significant negative publicity at nearly all levels that has only recently diminished.”

Among the issues with the 1309 project was the theft of metal components from the locomotive which were sold for scrap. The report says those restoring the locomotive continue to find parts which have been removed or damaged as a result of the metal theft and the extreme cost of repairing or replacing those parts. The report adds, however, that the 1309 restoration is now among the best managed projects at the railroad. "Overall, the 1309 program, while the focus of much of the negative attention on the railroad over the last two years, appears to be one of the programs now under the best control for a long-term sustainability toward final completion," the report says. "As of the writing of this report, the boiler has been test fired. The most significant unresolved issue at this point remains the cost of part replacement from the employee scrap theft incident."

It is on the 1309 which WMSR pins its hopes for success in the future. The report says once 1309 is operational, it will be a draw for the railroad for at least two years. "Essentially, the railroad is hanging on waiting for a ridership boost from the steam program that should, but is not guaranteed, to arrive," the report says. Declining ridership may be resolved once the 1309 is operational, the report says, but there are several issues with operating the locomotive across the WMSR, in particular with accessing the turntable at Frostburg, which the railroad will have to address in order to not only prevent derailment, but to also provide a satisfactory experience for its customers. The report also says the railroad must be prepared for an influx of visitors once 1309 is operational, and that means more volunteers will be needed. The 1309, however, may attract those volunteers, the report says.

"The absence of a significant volunteer base, with no indication that it is being addressed as a strategic problem, will have an opportunity to be corrected as the 1309 project attracts new public and rider interest," the report says. "The entire equation of donations, volunteers, and bottom-line performance will have a two-year period of renewed interest in the WMSR, if all the parties are prepared. The railroad, the County, and Cumberland can all be prepared and anticipate this opportunity, which will have impacts well beyond simple increased ridership."

The report also cites concerns related to the condition of the railroad's passenger car fleet and the rider experience provided by using those cars. Concerns surrounding the operability of the railroad's diesel locomotives, including its two GP30s, one of which is out of service, are also cited. The railroad has two operational diesels, one of the GP30s and a former Amtrak F40PHR leased from Larry’s Truck & Electric. Stone Consulting says in the report that if the railroad's diesels fail, the railroad will essentially be forced to shut down until another locomotive can be leased.

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