Published On: Wed, Apr 16th, 2014

Future of Cass Railroad questioned on social media

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Rumors began to circulate in early April about a change in management at Cass Scenic Railroad State Park. On April 3, a Facebook page, “Save the Cass Railroad,” was launched and updates citing anonymous sources were regularly posted.

One such update alleges that the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources is transferring management of the park to the Department of Commerce, which is over the West Virginia Rail Authority. It further states that a bid went out to private enterprises with the stipulation that all bidders have railroad tracks directly connected to the tracks at Cass.

These postings have led to a lot of speculation and conjecture.

The park system falls under the Department of Commerce, and Secretary of Commerce, Keith Burdette explained Tuesday that the issue isn’t as complex as it seems.

“We’re not doing anything right at this minute except looking to see if we have some options,” Burdette said. “The background story is pretty simple. Currently, Cass requires a subsidy of $1.4 million per year and in addition to that, the recent Federal Rail Authority inspection determined that we needed to spend another $1.4 million in just railroad tie replacement, and we need to spend about $700,000 in fairly routine maintenance. So you can see very quickly this is a fairly substantial financial hole.”

Burdette said the DNR is looking into a more sustainable way for the railroad half of the state park to run smoothly and sustainably.

“We want to make sure that the rail operates and that it continues to be a venue for tourists for a long time to come,” he said. “We have simply begun a couple discussions to see if there are other options.”

If the DNR transfers management of the railroad to the Rail Authority, it would be the third railroad operated by the entity. Among its duties, the WVRA maintains and monitors the rail lines within the state, owns and operates the 52.4 mile South Branch Valley Railroad and owns and oversees operation of the 132.1 mile West Virginia Central Railroad.

“This is the only railroad that state parks runs,” Burdette said. “Nothing’s been decided. There’s no bid process in place. Nothing has happened except we’ve had some discussions about how to make the railroad sustainable long-term.”

While the Rail Authority is the most likely candidate to take control of the railroad operation, WVRA executive director Cindy Butler explained that the board has not received a proposal regarding management of Cass.

“I do know that there are rumors out there, a lot of rumors, but nothing has been brought to our board at this time,” she said. “We haven’t been given any proposal.”

Because the Durbin and Greenbrier Valley Railroad is the only railroad connected to the track at Cass, DGVR owner/operator John Smith has been mentioned as the only person who could make a bid on the job.

“There’s no bids let out,” Smith said Tuesday morning. “The only thing we’ve discussed with anybody is working on this project [the train loop], and we are just talking about how that’s going to interface with Cass and up at old Spruce when our train comes down the valley and meets the Cass train. Beyond that, there’s no other decision.”

DGVR recently applied for a grant from the Federal Railroad Loan program to connect the DGVR tracks to the Cass tracks to create one large loop for tourist trains.

In response to the speculation on social media, Smith said people are following their emotions and not using logic.

“I read some of those things,” he said. “No one is thinking here. They are just going on wild emotion. The people in charge are trying to make the best decision for everybody. If you think about it, even if the DNR was going to do all this stuff, whose going to run those trains except the people that work there. I think they’ve got themselves worked up about nothing.”

One of the main concerns regarding the future of Cass is what would happen if it lost its state park status. Again, Smith said it isn’t as cut and dried as some may think.

“First of all, they’ll never do that,” he said. “It would have to have a vote of Congress to do that. The second thing is, even if that was the case and the Rail Authority was the operator, it would still be the Cass Scenic Railroad State Park and it would still be the people who are there running the train, etcetera. The state Rail Authority runs a railroad itself, and they seem to do quite well with it.”

Although the information on the Facebook page is not attributed to any specific person involved with Cass, the DNR or the WVRA, it has still garnered 8,016 Likes. Due to the activity on the site, many state representatives have received distressed calls and emails concerning Cass.

Delegate Denise Campbell said she has received a lot of calls which led her to make a few calls herself.

“I’ve actually talked to some individuals that knew a little bit more about what’s going on,” she said. “From what I understand, the thought process is the Rail Authority would have more knowledge of all the procedures and regulations and issues that would go along with a railroad probably more appropriately now than possibly the DNR.”

Campbell added that the people she contacted explained that the railroad operation is all that would be transferred and the rest of Cass Scenic Railroad State Park will remain under the umbrella of the DNR.

“It was initiated by the DNR,” she said. “It’s not that anyone is forcing anyone to do anything. The DNR has had this responsibility since it was created in 1963. It’s just the train service part and then everything else would remain under the DNR.”

DNR acting Chief of Parks Emily Fleming has yet to respond or return multiple calls to her office in regard to this issue.

Suzanne Stewart may be contacted at sastewart@pocahontastimes.com

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