By Justin Franz
CUMBERLAND, Maryland — After six years of hard work, setbacks and struggles, the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad triumphantly fired up Chesapeake & Ohio 2-6-6-2 1309 for the first time in 64 years on New Year’s Eve.
The late-night revival and subsequent test runs on January 1 and 2 were a bright spot in what has otherwise been a tough year for the tourist railroad, one that saw it enter “survival mode,” according to its executive director. And while its new steam star is nearly ready for its public debut, Executive Director John Garner said there is still much work ahead.
“We’re not quite out of the woods yet,” Garner said on Tuesday morning in an interview with Railfan & Railroad.
With the 2-6-6-2 almost ready, the railroad is now turning its attention to some much-needed trackwork. Late last year, the Federal Railroad Administration inspected the 16-mile line between Cumberland and Frostburg and found that it needed extensive work before passenger trains could be run again. The last time the railroad operated regular excursions was in 2019. The railroad was forced to cancel its 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While a local newspaper reported this week that the railroad needed 50,000 new crossties — essentially replacing every tie on the railroad — Garner said that was inaccurate and that they only need to replace 16,000 ties before the FRA will allow them to operate revenue-producing excursions.
Besides tie work, Garner said the railroad needs to inspect and work on some bridges on the line and clear brush. He estimates that the total cost to get the line ready for excursions will be approximately $2.5 million.
Volunteers do trackwork at the Western Maryland Scenic yard in Ridgeley, W.V., in October. Photo Courtesy of WMSR.
Garner said Allegany County, which owns the track, gave the railroad $140,000 for track improvements last year. Garner said the railroad is working with state and local officials to secure more funding with the hope of hiring a contractor to begin replacing ties in May. If everything goes according to plan, the railroad hopes to reopen the first week of July.
While Garner is focused on finding money for trackwork, volunteers are still working on C&O 1309. The locomotive was tested extensively around the railroad’s Ridgeley, W.V. yard early last month and the restoration team reports that there “were no surprises” during those runs. Because the locomotive has not been formally inspected by the FRA, it was not able to leave yard limits, Garner said, but that they’re hoping to have it blue carded in the coming months. Garner said the steam crew was working seven days a week making “adjustments and tweaks” to the locomotive and working on finishing the cab.
When the locomotive does run, it will only be operated facing west. While the big locomotive does fit on the railroad’s turntable at Frostburg, the curve leading up to the table is too tight and will need to be adjusted. Garner said that is a task on the railroad’s to-do list but it is one that will need to be done in coordination with the county.
Garner said he has been “humbled” by the outpouring of support from the railroad enthusiast community, adding that none of what has happened in the last few weeks would be possible without them. He was also appreciative of the volunteers and contractors who worked tirelessly to successfully fire up 1309 for the first time in more than six decades.
“If it was not for our fans and their tireless support, none of this would have happened,” he said.