Virginia Shore looks to rails-to-trails as railroad seeks to abandon tracks
The company that manages the railroad on Virginia's Eastern Shore notified government officials earlier this month that it will petition to abandon the line from Hallwood south to Cape Charles.
An attorney for the company wrote to Commissioner Stephen C. Brich of the Virginia Department of Transportation and other officials on June 13, saying Cassatt Management LLC plans to file a petition with the Surface Transportation Board for Canonie Atlantic Company, which operates the railroad. The petition outlines a plan to abandon the 49.1 mile stretch of railroad tracks as well as the car float operation from Cape Charles to Norfolk, which has been out of service since 2009.
"Petitioners believe that the line should be abandoned because there is no traffic moving over the line and the last movement of a minimal amount of traffic occurred in early 2018," the letter says in part.
A Bay Coast Railroad engine sits on the tracks in Cape Charles, Virginia on Friday, Oct. 19, 2018. (Photo: Staff photo by Carol Vaughn)
The line encompasses an area around 40 feet wide and runs parallel to Route 13 in most places.
Bay Coast Railroad — the latest company to operate the railroad under a lease and operating agreement with Canonie Atlantic — stopped all operations on April 30, 2018 without seeking approval, according to the petition.
Cassatt plans to file a required environmental and historic report, outlining the scope of the project, with the Surface Transportation Board on or after July 15, according to the letter, which seeks comment on a preliminary version of the report.
A similar letter was sent to officials at the Virginia Department of Historic Resources; the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers; Virginia Department of Environmental Quality; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; the National Park Service; The National Geodetic Survey; the Natural Resources Conservation Service; the Environmental Protection Agency; and Virginia Coastal Zone Management, and to the county administrators of Accomack and Northampton counties.
Spencer Murray and Donald L. Hart Jr., both county supervisors as well as Canonie officials, commented about abandonment of the line and plans to repurpose the land.
Murray, Northampton County Board of Supervisors chairman, also is a member of the Accomack-Northampton Transportation District Commission and senior vice president-administration of Canonie Atlantic Co.
Old railroad cars in Cape Charles, VIrginia (Photo: Staff photo by Carol Vaughn)
Board of supervisors members who serve on the Accomack-Northampton Transportation District Commission also serve as members of the Canonie Atlantic board of directors, which includes four county supervisors from each county along with one customer.
Donald L. Hart Jr., Accomack County Board of Supervisors chairman, is chairman of the ANTDC and also chairs the Canonie Atlantic board.
"We are working hard for the benefit of both counties, trying to maintain this asset," Hart said.
The petition says the company believes that "because the right-of-way is flat and generally straight, it would be well suited to conversion to trail use under the National Trails Act. Petitioners would be willing to enter into trail use discussions with any entity willing to convert the line to a trail," as regulations permit.
Repurposing the line as a trail would allow preservation of existing easements, including for broadband, and potential future ones, such as for a sewer line and a natural gas line, according to Murray.
"The easements have economic value — and we recognize that," he said, adding that Canonie is continuing to work with the Virginia Department of Rails and Public Transportation, the Virginia Tourism Commission, the USDA and the U. S. Department of Transportation "in exploring any efforts to partner with a rails-to-trails partner."
The Eastern Shore Railway Museum in downtown Parksley, Virginia on Wednesday, June 20, 2018. (Photo: Staff photo by Carol Vaughn)
Railroad abandonment of historic importance
Still, abandonment of the long section of track represents a significant moment in Eastern Shore of Virginia history — and likely will bring related changes to the surrounding areas, just as the building of the railroad did.
The railroad from Pocomoke City to Cape Charles was completed in 1884 and the rail line operated as the New York, Philadelphia and Norfolk Railroad. Its founder was Alexander Johnston Cassatt.
The railroad brought an economic boom to the region and resulted in several new towns springing up along the tracks, including Cape Charles, Exmore and Parksley, among others.
Similarly, in recent years rails-to-trails projects have been used in other localities as an economic development tool — and there are grants available for such projects, Murray said.
Murray wanted to dispel the rumor that the railroad "is going away."
"That needs to be dispensed with quickly," he said, noting Canonie Atlantic has a 20-year lease with Delmarva Central Railroad for nearly 15 miles of track from Pocomoke to Hallwood, and also a 20-year lease with the Buckingham Branch Railroad for the railroad's holdings across the Chesapeake Bay in Little Creek.
Both railroads are investing in the track and are seeking new customers, Murray said.
The stretch of line the company is seeking to abandon could have been abandoned years ago, when rail traffic there fell below the level needed to adequately fund operations and maintenance, he said.
"Even with 'no traffic,' the expenses of insurance, grass spraying, signal and track maintenance are very high, with only lease revenue to cover them," Murray said, adding that the rule of thumb is that it takes 100 cars per mile per year to sustain a railroad.
"We've never had anywhere close to 5,500 cars a year, even at the height of the railroad usage," he said of the stretch.
Bay Coast Railroad, when it operated with business largely coming from the now-closed Bayshore Concrete in Cape Charles, had traffic of only around three to four cars per mile per year.
To bring the tracks up to the federal level that would allow trains to go more than 10 miles per hour would cost an estimated $6.5 million, with another $500,00 a year in maintenance costs, Murray said.
"It's not financially sustainable," he said, adding, "The Canonie Atlantic board understands that we may get some unrealistic and unfunded opposition to this rail-banking action, and we will deal with it if it surfaces."
After a complicated history of railroad operations, the Accomack-Northampton Transportation District Commission, a political subdivision of the Commonwealth of Virginia, was established in 1976 to preserve the rail service.
It owns the railroad for both counties.
That body knows that "the Canonie Atlantic short line has value," Murray said, adding, "Our assets from Pocomoke to Cape Charles to Little Creek will keep us sustainable and important to the Eastern Shore."
Canonie is moving forward with the disposition of the Cape Charles railyard, which it owns.
"We are still in discussions," Murray said, adding that the company recently completed a survey of the 40-acre property and is cleaning it up.