No job or wage cuts for Cass employees

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A Heisler steam locomotive pulls a train at Cass Scenic Railroad State Park. G. Hamill photo.

The mighty steam locomotives at Cass have worked hard since the early 1900s and will continue to ply the winding tracks of Pocahontas County – but under a new boss.

Under the terms of an agreement executed on Thursday, the West Virginia Department of Commerce – the parent agency of the Department of Natural Resources and the West Virginia State Park system – transferred Cass Scenic Railroad State Park railroad operations to the State Rail Authority (SRA). The transfer will allow the Elkins-based Durbin and Greenbrier Valley Railroad (DGVR) to take over Cass railroad operations under its existing contract with the SRA.

West Virginia Secretary of Commerce Keith Burdette said the parties have worked on the agreement for months.

“What we’ve worked out, after months and months of discussion and negotiations – for just the operation of the railroad itself – we’ll give our operating authority to the Rail Authority and they will work with their vendor to operate Cass Rail,” he said. “They will take responsibility for maintenance of the line and they will retain all of those employees who wish to remain with Cass.”

None of the 14 Cass railroad employees will be fired or forced to relocate.

“The agreement that we’ve been negotiating, basically, will offer all the employees, who wish to remain with Cass, a position with the new vendor,” said Burdette. “The good news with that is that they’ll all get paid at least what they’ve been making. They’ll also get the opportunity to be part of the Federal Railroad Retirement System which, quite frankly, is better then the one they’re in. Especially for the younger members, this will essentially create a second retirement for them, utilizing the federal rail authority. That’s a plus.”

The Secretary said the change resulted from financial losses at the Cass state park.

“We are subsidizing that railroad to the tune of about a million and a half dollars a year, give or take, and that’s a very tough number to sustain,” he said. “It’s one of the most heavily subsidized parks that we have. This arrangement will allow us to focus our resources on the town of Cass and all the other amenities of the state park. The Rail Authority and its vendor will focus its resources on the maintenance of the tracks, the maintenance of the trains, and the operation of the trains. We think it’s a combination that will create long-term sustainability and we’ve been concerned about that for quite some time.”

Burdette said it was logical to transfer Cass railroad operations to train experts.

“It’s a common sense solution to a complicated problem,” he said. “This is the only train that the Division of Natural Resources runs, but it will be one of three trains that the State Rail Authority runs. It’s a smart partnership. We think the experience for our guests, which is really our central focus, will be strengthened by this plan.”

DGVR, owned by Elkins entrepreneur John Smith, is ready to get to work.

“We’ve been discussing this for every bit of six months now, trying to work out a plan and the details,” said Burdette. “The folks at Durbin and Greenbrier, John Smith and company, want to do some maintenance work on the tracks during the off-season and we want to maximize their opportunity to do that.”

No large amounts of money are changing hands under the agreements.

“We’re not paying them; they’re not paying us,” said Burdette. “We want them to spend their resources on the maintenance of the track. The Rail Authority may ask for a nominal contract fee. But the goal here, which I want to re-emphasize, is to save the railroad and perpetuate it. Right now, it’s consuming large subsidies. We want the folks from the Rail Authority and the Durbin and Greenbrier to keep their resources and apply it back to the maintenance of the track and the trains, which they are committed to do.”

Burdette said Smith plans major improvements and a longer train season.

“They’re looking at certifications that are higher than the ones currently in place on the rail,” he said. “They’re ultimately looking at a loop system that’s bigger than the one we have in place. But I’ll leave their bigger plans to them to discuss. They’ve already indicated that next year, they’d like to extend the season farther toward Christmas. So, they have some really great plans that fit in with our goals for the park. They’ll be able to focus all their resources and their knowledge, which is very good, on the trains, and we’ll be able to focus on what we know and that’s how to operate the park.”

Two years ago, Smith proposed construction of a 90-mile rail loop, using existing rail grades, to connect Elkins, Durbin, Cass, Tygart Junction and Belington. The train entrpreneur estimated the project would cost $24 million, but boost the regional economy by $50 million every year. Due to his success with the DGVR tourist railroad and the economic boost it gave to downtown Elkins, Smith’s proposal has found support in the Legislature.

Burdette is confident that Smith can bring the same economic boost – that he brought to Elkins – to Cass.

“We believe this solves the problem for the foreseeable future,” he said. “The folks that run Durbin and Greenbrier have a great track record. They’ve been able to accomplish a lot of great things in Elkins. We have a high confidence level. Their priorities certainly match ours. They want us to focus on the park end because they’d like to extend the season. They’d like to create some new experiences at Cass.”

Burdette will be visiting Cass on October 28 for an afternoon train ride.

“I decided about six months ago, after three or four years as Secretary, that one thing I hadn’t done was visit all of our state parks,” he said. “I’ve started that process. I’ve been to 28 state parks out of 36, I believe. In fact, I’m going to Cass next week.”

The Secretary is confident the Cass change-over is the right move.

“Personally, I’m excited about this,” he said. “I think it’s going to be a great day for Cass Railroad when this all comes together.”

Cass Scenic Railroad State Park features the world’s largest fleet of operational geared steam locomotives, including six Shays, a Heisler, and a Climax locomotive. Another rare Climax locomotive is being rebuilt by the park’s foundation of record, the Mountain State Rail and Logging Historical Association. See cassrailroad.com for more information.