Sights set on steam

This file photo shows the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad’s diesel engine No. 501. An operational audit released Aug. 12, 2019, cited numerous problems with the attraction that could force its closure if not remedied.

CUMBERLAND — An operational audit released this week on the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad cited numerous problems with the attraction that could force its closure if not remedied.

The 30-page audit was compiled by Stone Consulting Inc. of Warren, Pennsylvania. Work on the report was largely compiled in, but not limited to, the summer of 2018.

The report’s conclusion said, “there are a number of significant issues confronting the railroad on an operational level, several of which have the ability to impact ongoing operations to the point that the railroad would actually close.”

Issues included poor track condition, obscured views, delayed return of steam locomotive, limited engine backup options, financial limitations and problems with the overall rider experience.

The Times-News spoke to Randy Gustafson of Stone Consulting, who helped compile the audit. He confirmed that the railroad is actively working on the issues.

Brandon Butler, Allegany County administrator, released a statement in response to the audit.

“The Stone Report is a sobering look at the complex issues involved in the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad’s recovery from a difficult period in their history,” wrote Butler. “The Board of County Commissioners appreciates the detailed and professional analysis the report provides. It brings the guidance needed to move forward and we are going to require detailed responses from WMSR on all of the serious issues outlined by Stone Consulting.

“The WMSR has operated many successful seasons over the past two decades in which they were sustainable and made significant contributions to our county’s hospitality and retail economy. It is our goal to return the train to that status as a major national and regional attraction.”

The railroad continues to bank many of its hopes on the return of the 1949 Baldwin No. 1309 steam engine. Steam locomotives are one of the largest attractions in the scenic railroad industry. However, with nearly $3 million invested in No. 1309 since it was purchased in 2014, there is still no timeline for its return to the rails. Past planned debuts of No. 1309 have been scuttled multiple times.

“While the 1309 project may have gained the most attention, our on-site inspections, combined with data provided by the railroad, revealed significant maintenance and capital issues, along with ridership and customer feedback issues, that possibly deserve even more immediate attention than the steam locomotive restoration project that initiated this study project,” the audit said.

The massive Baldwin No. 1309 has also presented a challenge for the turntable at the Frostburg Depot. A realignment of the tracks may be needed to accommodate 1309.

“The problem is that the far longer length of the 1309 has original design features that limit the ability of the locomotive to deal with sharp horizontal – and sharp vertical curves.”

The audit said a significant increase in ridership and revenues are likely once the steam locomotive is returned to the rails.

The railroad owns three diesel-powered locomotives and has been using one to power their excursions.

“The difficulty of both finding parts and performing repairs on both diesel locomotives is an increasing issue,” the audit said. “In August 2018 the railroad only had one serviceable locomotive on site, and there is apparently no plan at all if that locomotive breaks down in service other than suspending operations.”

In addition to the issues with the return of No. 1309, the audit raised concerns with the rider experience as a whole.

“The concern is that the standard coach passenger experience is currently substandard compared to other excursion railroads and resulting in lower ridership, and it begins and ends at what happens in a coach seat. That is still where the majority of visitor time is spent.

“Today, for the conventional coach passenger, it has neither steam power or scenic view opportunity, or a particularly vintage and interesting passenger car to be seated in.”

The audit said the excursion is experiencing a “steady deterioration of views due to brush and tree growth.”

The report said county and WMSR officials had been “reviewing previous ideas that work-release prisoners could be used on a project to selectively improve viewscapes by selective brush removal on the trail and hillside.”

The audit said a Trip Advisor ranking said, “the WMSR doesn’t even make the top four attractions for Cumberland — despite a relatively good average visitor rating of 4 stars. The top-rated Cumberland attraction continues to be the bike trail (Great Allegheny Passage) at 5 stars. Deeper investigation of the comments and ratings indicate a true stratification of customer feedback based on what customers were doing on the railroad. Those customers that did dinner, Murder Mystery, or other entertainment/food events on the train were exceptionally satisfied and gave the railroad a solid ‘5 star’ rating.

“But those that rode the railroad as a typical coach passenger, ‘scenic ride,’ or bicycle shuttle had decidedly mixed reviews based on lack of steam, slow train speed, inaccessibility at Frostburg, lack of food service at Frostburg, few scenic views, and the back yard/rundown nature of Cumberland from the train windows.

“While negative posts are not numerous, the visitor satisfaction with the coach experience appears to be trending downward, and the ‘4’ rating is a combination of 5’s, 1’s and 2’s. Management has been relatively attentive to responding to posts.”

Many of the railroad ties along the route were found to be in poor condition. Their condition caused the Federal Railroad Association to reduce the 25 mph speed limit to 10 mph at certain points along the route. However, that problem is being addressed. The county, along with Cumberland and Frostburg contributed $90,000 to get the work underway to replace many of the ties.

“This should not be interpreted as that the railroad is now unsafe, but should be considered to be fair advance warning that the track is inexorably inching closer to being slowed down to a crawl over longer and longer sections.”

The WMSR receives $140,000 annually from the county. However, some state grants had many restrictions making them difficult to use the funds where they were most needed, according to the audit.

A major theft by an employee at the railroad also caused severe problems.

“The most significant unresolved issue at this point remains the cost of part replacement from the employee scrap-theft incident. The end result of the theft is that it is continuing to reverberate through the rebuild program, and while not completely stopping it, it still is an open and unresolved funding and cost issue.”

The entire audit can be viewed at the official Allegany County website.

Efforts to reach WMSR General Manager John Garner for comment were unsuccessful.

Follow staff writer Greg Larry on Twitter @GregLarryCTN.

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