Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Local News

January 28, 2013

General Assembly may put Tourist Train Authority back on track

Bluefield Daily Telegraph — Despite all the hurdles on the rails ahead, Tom Childress still believes that a two-state tourist train linking the town of Pocahontas with Bramwell and other communities in the Southwest Virginia and southern West Virginia coalfields would provide a boost to the local economy that could bring a halt the region’s prolonged economic tailspin.

“I’m all for the Spearhead ATV Trail system, but a tourist train in these communities is the only thing that can bring the kind of economic development that will turn things around for this part of Tazewell County and for the communities in southern West Virginia.”

The tourist train concept has been batted around for about a quarter of a century, but without a financial backer to step up, the few miles of Norfolk Southern track between Pocahontas and Bramwell remain rust covered. In the 1980s when the late Reginald Sexton championed the tourist railroad cause, people in the know reported that an operational steam locomotive would cost in the neighborhood of $1 million, with thousands of dollars more for maintenance and even more thousands of dollars for staff to operate and maintain an operational relic.

Major railroad companies nationwide discontinued their use of costly steam locomotives in the late 1950s, with the (then) Norfolk & Western Railway being the last of the major railroads in the U.S. to stand down its stable of steam locomotives circa 1960. When the U.S. economy was strong, the (now) Norfolk Southern Railway helped restore and maintain at least two operational steam locomotives including a sleek J-Class 611 steam locomotive and used those steam-powered units to power tourist trains. However, with maintenance costs, expenses associated with tying up the busy mainline freight tracks, and the retirement of railroaders who knew how to keep the old locomotives maintained, by the end of 1994, steam excursions had faded away.

But the tourist train dreamers of the Pocahontas Coalfields never quit working on the concept of operational steam locomotives pulling passenger cars from Pocahontas through Bramwell and on to Montcalm, Matoaka and beyond, if possible. Tourist train activists in both Virginias lobbied their respective state legislatures, and gained traction when a pair of powerful former governors — Joe Manchin in West Virginia and Tim Kaine in Virginia, now both U.S. Senators — helped make the two-state Tourist Train Authority a splinter in their two-state cooperation plank.

The spirit of cooperation faded when Kaine left Richmond, Va., to chair the National Democratic Party, and Manchin moved into the U.S. Senate seat that Bob Byrd had held since before diesels replaced steam on the southern West Virginia railroads. With the governor’s mansion in Richmond under new management, Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican, did away with a package of several dormant state-sanctioned authorities, including the Tourist Train Development Authority in 2011.

The Virginia General Assembly repealed the Tourist Train Authority in 2011, but at the start of the 2013 session, State Senator Phillip P. Puckett, D-Russell, introduced a bill — SB 819 — that would resurrect the authority without putting a single piece of rolling stock on the track. The bill cleared the Senate Committee on Local Government on Jan. 22, with a 12-0 vote.

“The tourist train authority was eliminated as part of Governor McDonnell’s government reduction plan,” State Delegate James W. “Will” Morefield, R-Tazewell, said in response to a question about the authority. “I support the authority and believe there is potential to create more tourism opportunities for the region. I will support the bill if it passes in the Senate and is sent to the House for a vote.”

Childress pointed out that the Tourist Train Authority hadn’t received any state funds. “We did receive some money from the board of supervisors, but nothing from the state,” Childress said. “The authority was established in the first place so we could cooperate with the Tourist Train Authority in Mercer County.”

SB 819 restores the make-up of the Virginia authority board that includes the two state legislators that represent the Pocahontas area, representatives from the Tazewell County, Bluefield, Va., and Pocahontas governing bodies and four citizen members from Tazewell County.

Childress said that plans are currently in the works to hold a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the hiking/riding trail along the connector tracks between Pocahontas and Bramwell this spring. “It will be on April 27,” Childress said. “That’s the same day as the annual Indian Run in the morning and the ceremony in the cemetery that evening that we hold to honor the 114 coal miners who died in the 1884 explosion at the East Mine,” Childress added.

— Contact Bill Archer at barcher@bdtonline.com�

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