Wes Vernon Commentary
Short Line Freight Path - Up Over 3,000% in 2 Years
Everyone knows the Strasburg Rail Road is a busy tourist choo-choo train in Pennsylvania, right? Well, the short line, with a history dating back before the Civil War, is still that. But now it's much more. (And by the way, it's within easy driving distance from the Washington area.)
The Little Engine That Could (and did)
Its freight business hauled nine freight cars in 2009. Now it's on track to haul up to 300 in 2011. That's a boost in freight business of 3,223 percent. Unlike the steam-powered passenger consists, Strasburg's freight trains are diesel-hauled.
We knew that freight rail had escaped some of the worst effects of the ongoing recession, but over 3,000 percent? Even with only 4.5 miles of track, surely Strasburg Rail Superintendent Stephen Weaver may be excused for his euphoric declaration to the Lancaster Sunday News that "Freight railroading is going nowhere but up."
The steam-powered passenger trains will always be how the Strasburg line is best known. It fascinates history buffs and kids alike with its portrayal of passenger railroading as it was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Indeed that linkage can be traced to the line's history, having been founded in 1832.
Though the little puffers are the superstars, freight is where the biggest money-potential is. By the early 21st century, as Strasburg's freight business has diminished to zero and passenger tourist traffic had taken a dip of its own, Weaver got serious about the freight potential.
The result: "Transloading" cars from Class I freight trains at Leaman Place, a whistle stop on the old PRR mainline, and transferring the contents to trucks. The principle freight operator in Lancaster County is Norfolk Southern (NS). Mainline passenger is Amtrak's Keystone Corridor. Leaman Place's claim to fame is President-elect Abraham Lincoln's visit there where he spoke to a crowd of 5,000 on February 22, 1861, as his train was heading to Washington for the inauguration.
Freight: where the rail money is
In recommitting the small but potentially lucrative line to its freight business, the Strasburg Rail Road is (1) upgrading track to take on freight cars that outweigh the passenger antiques by threefold, (2) replacing a Civil War-era railroad bridge, (3) dedicating five of its 40 full-time employees to the freight business, (4) paying for infra-structure to better offload bio-fuel from tank cars, and (5) expecting to divert more than 6,300 truckloads from local roads over five years. To protect its passenger operations (which includes dinner trains) Strasburg does not haul hazardous fuel.
The boss of the short line declines to name his customers, citing "the competitive nature of the business."
Much of the seed money for the newly revived freight service was provided by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, but the tiny rail line fully expects to make it on its own. Making money? It's getting there, but breaking even for now. Weaver has big plans for this little railroad, fully expecting to participate in the freight boom where the major rail companies have more than doubled their volume since the early 1980s when they were partially de-regulated. But for all that, the charm of Strasburg is in its passenger service, especially the dinner trains. It's a three-hour drive from the Washington area. Or for bitter-ender train riders, there's Amtrak's NEC to Philly, and then change to Keystone service to Lancaster.