For immediate release:
Stewartstown Railroad Saved! Operations to Resume
Despite all odds, the 129 year old Stewartstown Railroad has come back from near death – again. Threatened with abandonment, foreclosure and dismemberment, “The Railroad that refuses to die” has ensured its existence by paying off a debt owed to the estate of its former President. The estate had attempted to force the abandonment of the line. They felt that tearing up and selling the railroad’s assets was the best way to get the money that they were owed. Earlier this year, the Stewartstown Railroad was named one of the most endangered railroads in the United States by the National Railroad Historical Society. It was also recently identified by Preservation Pennsylvania as one of the Commonwealth’s most at risk historic properties. By paying the debt and settling with the estate, the beloved local shortline has ensured its existence for the future.
The problem started five years ago, when President George Hart passed on and the railroad found that instead of the debt being forgiven as they had been assured it would be, the estate aggressively pursued collection of the entire amount owed. While fighting a rearguard legal action with the Surface Transportation Board, the company struggled to find ways of raising the funds to retire the debt. Under Hart’s administration, the company had ceased running trains in 2004 and the poor condition of the rail line prevented operation and generating an income, making conventional loans impractical. Efforts were made to find a buyer who would operate the line but were unsuccessful. In the end, a combination of loans from private individuals and sales of stock were assembled to raise the funds, which were turned over to the estate last week. The estate filed for the withdrawal of its abandonment petition earlier this week.
It is not the first time that the Stewartstown Railroad has faced at a bleak future. In the 1930s, declining traffic from the farms in the local area threatened its survival. The switch from steam to internal combustion locomotives reduced costs enough to return the railroad to profitability. In 1972 the line’s connection through Penn Central to the rest of the national railroad system was cut off by Hurricane Agnes. It took 13 years before a rebuilt connection and repairs to the line allowed to reopen, only to have its anticipated largest customer shut down at almost the same time the railroad restarted in 1985. The Stewartstown Railroad hauled freight until 1992, and then continued to run passenger trains until 2004 before shutting down due to poor track condition.
The Stewartstown Railroad is a classic example of an old-fashioned short line, a farmer’s railroad running 7.4 miles to from Stewartstown to a connection with the Northern Central Railway in New Freedom. The railroad served as a vital link for local farmers and businesses in a time when most goods moved by rail. Its sharp curves, steep grades and light rail reflect the economy of construction that was a hallmark of such lines. Most of these lines have either been substantially upgraded or abandoned, so the Stewartstown is in many ways the last of its kind. Amazingly, although it goes through condominiums and developments in the bedroom communities that are its endpoints, much of the line retains a rural bucolic character. “The Deer Creek Valley line” will offer a beautiful scenic ride once full size trains run again. The station in Stewartstown also retains a resemblance to days gone by. “Stepping into the old station is like walking through time” said Bitten “it could be the 40s again”.
The railroad has hosted motorcar operations, the small four-wheel track cars once used for inspecting the line, for several years now, and a cadre of volunteers has been fixing the station, the coaches, the locomotives and the track in anticipation of operating full size trains. “Now that we know the line is going to be around, we expect even more volunteers. A number of people had told us they did not want to invest a lot of time if the possibility existed that the line would be removed” said Ken Bitten, a member of the board of directors. The railroad has no paid employees. All of the directors and officers also serve on a volunteer basis. “Now that the railroad’s existence is assured, we can focus on working on running trains.”
While the railroad’s existence has been secured, much time and money is needed before the railroad can offer rides in its 1930s era coaches. “We have a great crew of people working on the equipment now, but we could certainly use more.” Said company President Dave Williamson. “Anyone who has an interest in learning how to fix track or is willing to paint, work on equipment, help host open houses or learn how to run a motorcar is encouraged to come by. We are proud that we can now say that your efforts will not be wasted. In addition, funds are still needed as well. Fixing up tracks and trains is an expensive process, even if we are not paying anybody to do the work.” The railroad is still finalizing plans about its return to operation, but the company is estimating that the cost will be well over $100,000.
Much progress has already been made. The lower part of the station roof in Stewartstown has been repaired, and the woodwork is being painted for the first time in decades. Work has started on replacing the broken and damaged windows in the coaches, patching up the bodies and painting them. 44 ton GE locomotive #10 has been restored to operation and is being leased to Steam into History, the Civil War era passenger train running out of New Freedom. 35 ton Plymouth locomotive #9, known as “Mighty Mo”, has received rebuilt air brakes and other mechanical attention. Dozens of washouts and eroded banks have been repaired and hundreds of cross ties have been installed, although many more are needed. “Our plan is to start small, a locomotive and a caboose for a mile or less, then put a coach into service and keep making the ride longer. We need to make sure that everything is done right, and that the Federal Railroad Administration is comfortable with our track, our equipment, and our operating practices. There is still a lot to be done”, said Bitten. We believe we will be operating trains over part of the line next year, possibly even sooner. It is all a function of how much people are willing to help.”
The Stewartstown Railroad Company is planning a “Director’s Special” Motorcar Train on October 5, 2013 (Rain Date Oct 12) at 1 pm which will be open to the public as well as friends and supporters of the railroad to celebrate the rebirth of “the railroad that refuses to die.” Tickets are $20 per person and the ride will go from Stewartstown to New Freedom and back. Tickets can be purchased online ahead of time with a limited number available at the station in Stewartstown on the day of the excursion.
Anyone who wants to assist in the rehabilitation of the property and the restoration of full size train rides can send donations to the Stewartstown Railroad at P.O. Box 155 Stewartstown PA 17363 or thru the website with a credit card. (Donations to the railroad are not tax deductable.) For more information on the railroad, please see the company’s website at www.StewartstownRailroadCompany.com or follow us on Facebook at www.Facebook.com/StewartstownRailroad
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For additional information, contact Ken Bitten at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone 410-336-1605.