- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 13, 2005

CUMBERLAND, Md. — Deep inside the Brush Tunnel, with coal smoke and steam filling the air, there is scant light in the cab of Engine No. 734. Its large, round pressure gauge glows dimly, flanked by two bulbs barely illuminating a pair of water meters.

But down near the floor, between the engineer and fireman, a ribbon of intense brightness leaks from the edges of the firebox doors.

When a fireman stokes the engine, rapidly shoveling greasy coal into the fiery maw, passenger Joe Dent gets glimpses of the 2,500-degree flames, as hot as a crematorium.

The breathtaking heat, the soot and the smoke are part of the experience Mr. Dent wanted, while the other 220 passengers on the Western Maryland Railroad sit in air-conditioned coaches, insulated from the messy cacophony.

“I never miss a chance to experience old technology,” said the 54-year-old Mr. Dent, an American University archaeologist who paid $75 for the cab ride, compared with the regular adult fare of $22. “It’s sort of like life in the past lane.”

Steam train buffs are rallying to save the tourist train, pulled by a 1916 Baldwin locomotive on some of its 32-mile, round-trip runs between Cumberland and Frostburg on the old Western Maryland Railway line.

A state subsidy that helped sustain it through 16 spring-through-fall seasons is ending this year, raising the possibility that the railroad’s private, nonprofit operator will have to find another, less costly route or shut down.

Either outcome would be disappointing, said Steve Barry, managing editor of Railfan and Railroad Magazine. He said the Western Maryland Scenic is unique because the best showing for a steam locomotive is climbing steep mountain passes and that it is just one of 40 steam-powered tourist trains still operating in the United States.

A committee studying the train’s survival prospects will announce its findings in September. There are glaring differences of opinion, according to draft recommendations released Aug. 5.

The train’s managers say it can survive without state subsidies, ranging from $100,000 to $200,000 annually, provided revenue trends continue. But the state Department of Transportation says the railroad’s 5-year estimates for track, bridge, tunnel and equipment maintenance are at least $1.1 million too low.

The railroad could save $1 million to $2 million over that period by discontinuing runs to Frostburg, said Richard Johnson, deputy director of the agency’s Office of Freight Logistics.

One issue is the 914-foot Brush Tunnel, which the train would share with a hiking-and-biking path being built with federal, state and local funds as part of a planned Pittsburgh-to-Washington trail system.

Leaders of the railroad and the Allegheny Highlands Trail of Maryland said they’re confident the tunnel’s safety issues can be resolved with automated gates or flagmen, but they haven’t settled on a final plan.

Railroad operators have sounded more agreeable since state tourism chief Dennis M. Castleman publicly chastised them in June, accusing them of bad-mouthing the trail over the train’s loudspeaker.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide