Better Days on the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad

By John Hankey

It has been a rough year for the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad. Like most heritage lines around for decades, it is a resilient and resourceful operation. But this year has been a doozy.

WMSR is like the proverbial cat with nine lives. I recall a half-dozen times over the last 30 years when the project might have folded (with good reasons) and ended up as a bike trail. Instead, it survives as a splendid example of Big Time mainline steam railroading.

By late 2015, there was a realistic chance WMSR might suspend operations. It faced persistent external challenges and the kinds of pernicious internal issues that sneak up on an organization–and can kill it.

There was another possibility: that WMSR had turned a corner, or at least recognized it needed a top-to-bottom shake up. Sometimes things have to get really bad before an organization pulls up short, makes difficult decisions, and works hard to get better. WMSR chose that path.

This is how things looked (at least to me) in early 2016.

The C&O 1309 rebuild project was unfolding more slowly than hoped. Fifty-odd years of outside storage took a serious toll. Almost 300 flexible staybolts and other boiler elements were damaged beyond repair. A chunk of the firebox door ring was shot. Kevin Rice, WMSR’s CMO, prudently concluded that a new rear tube sheet was the best option–there were too many cracks to weld. Lots of critical parts were long gone. The C&O hadn’t treated the locomotive well over its few years of service, and it had been “rode hard and put away wet,” to borrow an equestrian term. It was going to be a somewhat bigger project than first imagined.

WMSR’s stalwart 2-8-0 No. 734 had run out of time, with only a few boiler days left before going cold for its own FRA 1472-day overhaul. One of the railroad’s two GP-30s was lame with low-voltage electrical problems. Even seemingly rugged road diesels get frail in their sixth decade of hard use. The passenger car fleet needed serious attention. The railroad was safe–but it was tired.

The Western Maryland Scenic Railroad Development Corporation (the quasi-public development authority that runs the railroad on tracks owned by Allegany County and the State of Maryland) had gotten crosswise with just about everyone. That isn’t a good posture in a small Appalachian city like Cumberland, where relationships matter.

On February 17, WMSRDC appointed John Garner as its new General Superintendent. From that point forward, it was going to be “A New Day on the Western Maryland.” The problem was that no one really knew what that might look like.

The following week after heavy rains, the earth moved near Frostburg, the railroad’s western terminus. A steep slope of 140 year-old coal mine waste on the inside of a curve near No. 9 Switch slumped away from the track. It took the State of Maryland geologists about 15 seconds to conclude that WMSR trains were not going around that curve to Frostburg any time soon.

A few weeks later and a few miles east, another slow motion landslide took the railroad out of service at Woodcock Hollow. Geologists needed two months to decide that WMSR shouldn’t be running trains past that slide. The railroad continued operating over a truncated route that stopped just shy of Woodcock Hollow but included an extra mile east to the old Western Maryland terminal at Maryland Junction. It was still an interesting ride–just not all the way up the hill.

The first half of the year was touch-and-go. Garner accepted everyone’s resignations, then rebuilt the shop, operating, and office staffs from a core group of employees. He ran trains in Winter and on holidays. WMSR honestly engaged the arduous process of getting square with the FRA and dealing with deferred maintenance. Money was tight. But for the first time in a long time, the railroad had real leadership and a compelling, practical vision.

The Board got fully behind John Garner. They found money to keep the railroad running when the opened purse yielded nothing but moths. The Board began a formal strategic planning process in June, and got much more involved and personally invested. Good things began to happen more often than bad. And Garner was agile enough to turn some of the crises into opportunities.

When the caterer for the railroad’s dinner train service abruptly pulled the pin, Garner and the Board brought cooking and serving back “in house,” and took the opportunity to do a much needed $50k refurbishment of the kitchen car. The Board found the resources to replace broken-down hi-rail vehicles. Long-festering issues got addressed, if not resolved. People noticed that a different WMSR was emerging.

Garner had immediately begun mending relationships. Some efforts were more like social calls. Others were a lunch on the dining car or a ride in the cab. The process was intense, but in my 45 years of railroading, I have never seen such common-sense outreach, or so many positive results, so quickly attained. WMSR had more friends in the community than it realized.

By May, the “Big Wheel” started to turn. The Governor and Maryland Legislature appropriated $400k to help complete the 1309, and $250k for much-needed repairs to the passenger car fleet. CSX committed to help WMSR acquire a more modern and reliable diesel locomotive.

WMSR and the Canal Place Preservation and Development Authority (WMSR’s “landlord” at the 1911 Station complex) concluded a mutually-favorable long-term agreement giving the railroad use of the entire 4th floor of the Cumberland station.

In August, the state completed emergency stabilization of the No. 9 landslide with funds from a Federal coal mining remediation program. Allegany County is working with geotechnical consultants to permanently fix the unstable rock at Woodcock Hollow. Everyone wants to restore Frostburg as WMSR’s western destination as quickly as possible.

Onboard crews started wearing traditional railroad attire and bigger, more natural smiles. The food is better and will be even more enjoyable when WMSR begins serving authentic WM and B&O Dining Car cuisine. There hasn’t been a major mechanical failure. And passengers are beginning to come back, helped by a new reservations system. Fall looks like it will be a busy time. There are still snags and issues, but I see real progress.

And the 1309? You can make a lot of headway with the right people and enough resources. The tender is completely done. The new tube sheet will go in shortly. Replacement tires are mounted, new tubes and flues on the property, and the appliances are nearly ready. Contractors are fabricating a new cab and preparing to install the tubes and fix those staybolts.

Kevin Rice is a steam locomotive veteran and familiar with big and challenging projects. He is also a cautious and meticulous craftsman. When the 1309 comes together in December, it will be done correctly and be ready for 15 years of reliable service. Rice thinks WMSR will be boiling water in January and hauling people with steam in February.

I’ve seen turn-arounds in the railroad heritage business. And recoveries that did not work out so well. I have never seen a heritage railroad land at such a low spot and bounce back so quickly or strongly. This cat may have used up one more of its lives, but that seems to have made a critical difference. WMSR in 2017 will be a very different railroad with a solid future. I would not have said that a year ago. And it is a fine feeling to be able to say it now.

More to come.


Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in Trains Magazine’s Observation Tower blog on September 12, 2016. You can see the original post here:

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By | 2016-11-22T15:31:41+00:00 November 22nd, 2016|News|Comments Off on Better Days on the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad