WMSR preparing steam engine for service

Smoke billows from the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad’s Baldwin locomotive No. 1309 on June 29. The Federal Railroad Administration has ordered the replacement of all railroad ties between Cumberland and Frostburg before the railroad can resume excursions.

CUMBERLAND — County officials are demanding a financial audit of the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad to examine the books of the tourist attraction.

Del. Mike McKay, along with Frostburg Mayor Bob Flanigan, provided an update on the scenic railroad at Thursday’s meeting of the Allegany County Board of Commissioners.

It was also learned that fans of the highly anticipated debut of Engine No. 1309 Maryland Thunder will have to wait as the locomotive is still not operational despite millions of dollars and years of maintenance work. WMSR officials said the massive Baldwin steam locomotive is still unable to operate under its own power while issues with the condition of railroad tracks also remains a problem.

McKay, who recently joined the WMSR board, offered some good news when he announced that Gov. Larry Hogan had awarded the scenic railroad a $500,000 grant through federal CARES Act funding.

“We thank Gov. Hogan for that,” said McKay. “The railroad is (a) leader in tourism for the region. We know the importance the railroad brings to the county.”

Commissioner Dave Caporale expressed concerns with the WMSR finances and its efforts to repair the tracks. The county approved funding in the amount of $45,000 toward the purpose of installation of railroad ties and general track maintenance in June of 2019. The funds were needed for emergency repairs including the replacement of 1,200 railroad ties. The money was on top of the $140,000 the county funds the WMSR each year.

“Over time we also had hotel-motel (tax revenue) going for track maintenance,” said Caporale. “In 2019 we provided additional money for emergency maintenance. From what I see, the railroad ties are still over in the yard. It sounds like everyone is getting paid but the county is going to be asked for this huge amount of money. We would like to demand a financial audit. What’s owed, how many vendors are owed ... I think we deserve to know.”

“We agree it will be part of the audit we have agreed upon,” McKay said. “It will be sent on a monthly basis.”

In an effort to restructure WMSR’s financial system, McKay said a new executive financial board is being formed along with new bylaws outlining fiscal responsibilities.

McKay said the WMSR needs to “better inform the public and to be good stewards of the taxpayers’ money.”

“We are in the process of reconstituting the WMSR,” he said. “We are creating an executive financial board. This board will provide the guidance to oversee major financial decisions. It will be accountable to all governing bodies and the taxpayer. We will make sure the emphasis will be on transparency, accountability and fiscal responsibility.”

McKay said the WMSR has entered into an agreement with First Peoples Community Federal Credit Union and the auditing firm of Turnbull, Hoover and Kahl to provide monthly reports on the railroad finances.

“We have also taken care of the arrears that were owed to Canal Place and that has been satisfied here locally,” said McKay.

WMSR officials are proposing a $3 fee per ticket to help with track maintenance.

Flanigan said the railroad board knows what needs to be done. He said the Federal Railroad Association has inspected their tracks and trains and has given them a report containing the areas that must be improved in order to operate.

Flanigan said Engine No. 1309 “still has got some things that need done to it. But we are moving forward to get those things taken care of and get operating this summer.”

The 1949 Baldwin Engine was purchased in 2014 by the WMSR and a restoration program was subsequently started.

McKay said the return of riders will help matters.

“We need to address our track issues which we hope to have done by the summertime,” said McKay. “We hope to have a summertime start. It is also our intention to bring the Polar Express back. We know we need a return of ridership and to get operating and that is our goal.”

Greg Larry is a reporter at the Cumberland Times-News. Follow him on Twitter @GregLarryCTN.

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