Talks heat up of saving Tennessee Railroad as an excursion line
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Could the Tennessee Railroad have a future as an excursion line?

It appears that it could, at least in part. An unidentified company has entered talks over the future of the imperiled Oneida-to-Devonia rail line, which RJ Corman is seeking to abandon.

“There is definitely some discussion,” Scott County Mayor Jeff Tibbals said Friday, citing conversations between himself, Campbell County Mayor EL Morton and Anderson County Mayor Terry Franks, in addition to the interested party. Tibbals was reticent to identify the company that has expressed an interest, stressing that the process is early.

“It’s a long shot,” Tibbals said. “But they’re interested in making it work.”

Such a venture would involve millions of dollars in investments and upgrades to the 130-year-old rail line before it could become reality. And any business venture would likely combine both an excursion train and freight trains for usage of the rail line.

“It won’t work just as a tourism train,” Tibbals said. “The transportation board won’t hold up (the abandonment) for a proposal like that.”

Instead, he said, the line would need to be used to move freight — like coal and timber — in order to be sustainable. That’s part of what makes its future as an excursion line a long shot. There is no coal mining currently taking place in the New River Basin, though not for a lack of trying, and it’s unlikely to come back soon. The federal Office of Surface Mining effectively banned mountaintop removal mining in the Cumberlands a decade ago, and other restrictions make it essentially impossible for mining permits to be issued in the region. Some companies have made application for permits, only to have their petitions rejected.

Logging remains an active industry in the New River Basin. But while logging railroads were once popular — in fact, the Tennessee Railroad was originally extended from Paint Rock to Norma in the early 1900s not for coal purposes, but to move timber — most logging operations today move their product over the roads.

However a long shot it may be, an excursion train may be the best shot at saving the railroad. While RJ Corman’s planned abandonment of the line doesn’t automatically mean that its old steel rails will be ripped up, that appears to be the direction it is headed, if a buyer cannot quickly come to terms with the Nicholasville, Ky.-based company.

RJ Corman purchased the 42-mile railroad line from National Coal Co. in 2010 for $3 million. That move came as National Coal, a prolific mine operator in the Cumberlands for a short while, was gripped by financial troubles and began liquidating its assets. Four years earlier, it purchased the Tennessee line from Norfolk-Southern for $2 million.

Both National Coal and Corman had plans of revitalizing the railroad line for the transportation of coal, but it never happened. National Coal ran only a few trains over the line, and RJ Corman’s plans never materialized. As a result, the rail line has sat vacant for the past decade.

An excursion train wouldn’t be the first of its kind on the Tennessee Railroad. During National Coal’s ownership of the railroad, an Anderson County business owner and some partners established the New River Scenic Railway, which had a small depot near Huntsville. But the excursion railroad never got seriously on its feet before the Great Recession worsened and counted National Coal among its victims. RJ Corman disallowed the excursion train’s use of its rails after purchasing the railroad in 2010, the depot burned, and the engine and passenger cars currently sit in disrepair on a side track at the end of the line near S.R. 116 in Anderson County.

There has also been some interest in converting the railroad into a biking trail as part of a rails-to-trails program. Such trails on former railroad lines have become popular in parts of the U.S. The most notable example in the Southeast is the Virginia Creeper just north of Bristol. However, such a proposal isn’t likely to gain traction and would likely face significant opposition from landowners along the railroad line — similar to a proposal to use the since-abandoned Brimstone Railroad for a rails-to-trails program several years ago.

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