CUMBERLAND — Officials with the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad say the massive Baldwin steam engine No. 1309 is fully operational and are confident the locomotive can be cleared for duty this summer.
The railroad board held its March meeting Monday afternoon aboard a newly-leased, double-decker 1955 Budd Dome Car. The stainless steel, air-conditioned car was built for the Great Northern Railway and seats 28 downstairs and 62 upstairs.
During the meeting, Nathaniel Watts, the scenic railroad's chief mechanic, said he hopes the steam engine will be cleared by the Federal Railroad Administration for operation this summer.
According to Watts, the train can make the run to the Frostburg Depot and back but work is being done to meet railroad administration inspection standards. The WMSR has run excursions from Cumberland to Frostburg since 1986.
The scenic railroad has been using diesel engines while preparing the steam locomotive, which was purchased in 2014.
"The steam locomotive is 100% operational," said Watts. "We are waiting for a few parts that have to be cast. We had a few leaks. So before the FRA comes out to inspect it, we want to make sure we are 100% confident that it will pass. We want to be running this summer and we think we can."
Allegany County officials said last week said the county would take over maintenance of the 14-miles of track from Cumberland to Frostburg. The move will take the financial burden off the scenic railroad, which was ordered by the railroad administration to replace thousands of aging railroad ties before it can run.
Bob Flanigan, WMSR vice president, said conditions are improving in regard to the pandemic as more Americans receive vaccinations. He is optimistic that events like RailFest, typically held in September, and the Polar Express held in December, can happen.
President Joe Biden earlier this month directed states to make all adults, ages 18 and up, eligible for COVID-19 vaccines by May 1. Last week, Gov. Larry Hogan unveiled a plan to expand eligibility in waves, with all adults eligible by April 27.
"That is what the big push is for," Flanigan said. "That being said, there could be another outbreak. I don't want to tell you that no matter what, we are going to depart on this date. We still have to be conservative with the health of our riders and our staff."
The WMSR sold 12,000 tickets, according to Flanigan, for the Polar Express excursions held in December 2019 before the train was shut down in March last year by the pandemic.
"But I hope by October everything is back 100%, but we don't know," said Flanigan.
WMSR officials are working with the staging company Real Events, which grants licensing for the Polar Express brand, to receive approval to hold the Christmastime excursion this year.