Pair Makes Last-Ditch Effort To Save Railroad

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Railroad tracks in Parksley are deteriorated. Staff photo.

By Jim Ritch —

More than three years of legal wrangling over the fate of the former Bay Coast Railroad may enter its final phase on Oct. 18, when contractors begin north of Onancock tearing up track.

But a former railroad manager and retired public defender say that the fight to save the line continues and that they have an operator willing to take it over.

The Canonie-Atlantic board, owner of the railroad, gave the go-ahead on Monday night for up to 10 months of work to remove the tracks south to Cape Charles, said Spencer Murray, vice chairman.

“The tracks can never be used as is. They happen to be of very good steel that can be repurposed. The price right now is good,” Murray said.

Removal of the rails is necessary for the right of way to be protected under the National Trails Act, he said.

“The National Trails Act requires that we not erect any permanent structures on the right of way,” he said.

“We are seeking protection to preserve our broadband line that runs along the railroad right of way, ­ANEC connections that cross it, and the Hampton Roads Sanitary District’s proposed forced main,” he said.

Without legal protection, between 500 and 600 separate parcels that make up the 49-mile railroad would have to be renegotiated.

Proceeds from the sale are expected to more than cover the cost of removing the tracks, he said.

The use of the profits has not been stipulated and the amount isn’t exactly known because the contract allows for some flexibility in the resale price of steel, he said.

Murray declined to name the company that was awarded the bid, saying that a press release is forthcoming.

The firm was chosen after a competitive bid process, in part because the firm has completed over 3,000 miles of repurposing railroad tracks.

Former railroad manager John Paffrath, of Cape Charles, and attorney Roger Malick, of Baltimore, hope to see traffic return to the tracks much sooner, perhaps by Christmas.
Officers in a nonprofit corporation, the pair recently garnered approvals from town councils in Parksley and Exmore, supporting the start of rail biking and an eventual return to active railroading.

Paffrath said that the operator of three New Jersey short-line railroads is willing to invest $100,000 for track improvements and $600,000 in rolling stock to begin a venture.

No formal submission or request has been made to Canonie-Atlantic or the Accomack Northampton Transportation District Commission, said Murray.

The two sides strongly disagree on the condition of the tracks and the funding needed to bring them back to working order.

Paffrath believes that 70% of the line is already in grade one condition, as defined by the Federal Railroad Administration.

This would permit speeds of 8 to 10 miles per hour, said Murray.

Murray said two railroads — the Buckingham Branch Railroad, of Dillwyn Va., and the Delmarva Central Railroad, in Delaware — believed that the necessary repairs would be in the millions of dollars and that the line could not be operated profitably.

The two sides also disagree on the potential amount of traffic on the line.

Paffrath said that in 2018 he collected letters of interest to ship as many as 1,700 cars of freight annually, and he envisions light rail and tourist trains bringing the total to nearly 5,000 cars.

When Bay Coast Railroad filed for bankruptcy in 2018, it was hauling on only about 500 cars per year, said Murray.

Don Hart, chair of Canonie-Atlantic and Accomack District 9 supervisor, said that the company has worked with several parties interested in operating the railroad.

However, “we can’t have pie-in-the-sky proposals. They’ve got to put some meat on those bones,” he said.