By Eric Berger
TABOR CITY, N.C. — The possibility of excursion trains running out of Tabor City, N. C., has moved a step closer toward reality after the city issued a Request For Proposals seeking an operator for such service. The move comes after several years of efforts by local officials who believe such an operation could attract tourism and become an economic generator for that section of the state.
This effort follows a successful drive to revive the moribund Carolina Southern Railroad, which by 2014 had all but halted operations on most of its trackage in both Carolinas due to deterioration of the roadbed and the FRA-ordered embargo of three bridges. A commission that included representatives of local governments in both states attained its primary goal in 2015, when the RJ Corman acquired ownership of all but one mile of the system and put it back into service a year later as its Carolina Lines after a major track rehabilitation project, with further track upgrades still underway. A railroad spokesman recently said it has spent approximately $45 million on upgrades, partly funded with grants, and hopes to gain certification to run at 25 mph by 2022.
That success led the commission to pursue the idea of an excursion train, resulting in a feasibility study and lengthy discussions with RJ Corman, who proved open to the idea, with certain caveats. These include a requirement that any improvements or other expenditures required for the initiation or operation of such service will not be the responsibility of the freight railroad.
That apparently quelled the interest of officials in Conway, S.C. and others on the south side of the border, so the RFP seeks an operator solely on the lines within North Carolina, between Tabor City and Fair Bluff, a nearly 25-mile run.
Following talks with railroad management, those working on the project determined that the passenger operation should hire the employees and own the motive power and equipment, with RJ Corman providing employee training and dispatching services.
In the five years since operations began on the Carolina Lines, the railroad has seen remarkable growth in traffic and continues working to attract new freight customers. Current traffic includes all the inbound materials for Atlantic Paper Company and three trains a week from a lumber mill on the line, among other customers.
The company stations power, mostly GP38s, at various locations, including Mullins, Chabourn, Red Bluff and Tabor City, often handing off trains in Pony Express relay fashion. It has also placed RJC 1701, an example of a Railpower GG20 “Green Goat” originally built for Canadian Pacific, on display near Conway, S.C., along Highway 501.