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Fayette Central Railroad approaches end of 6-year road

| Thursday, Dec. 6, 2012, 12:11 a.m.
The tourist train operated by Fayette Central Railroad will end its six-year run in December because its lease was not renewed. A passenger boards the train car in Dunbar Borough on Sept.l 24, 2011. FILE PHOTO Evan R. Sanders | Tribune-Review

A tourist train in Fayette County will end its six-year run at the end of the month when its lease expires, leaving would-be riders with just a few more chances to catch a ride on the scenic rail line.

While some say the demise of Fayette Central Railroad is a hit for the county's tourism industry, others note it marks a resurgence in commercial rail traffic.

“It's a shame for the community, but in a way, the railroad is a victim of the revitalization of the railroad industry in the country and the county,” said Mark Rowan, a railroads shareholder. “That rail line was barely used when we started, so it was perfect for a tourist railroad then.”

Fayette Central had access to the line when it was owned by Fay-Penn Industrial Development Corp., a nonprofit associated with Fay-Penn Economic Development Council. In February, Fay-Penn sold the track's right of way to Southwest Pennsylvania Railroad, which is operated by Carload Express.

Ron Cole, Fay-Penn's construction project coordinator, said the number of commercial rail cars that use the line has increased from 200 annually to between 2,500 and 3,000. Most of the new traffic is carrying sand used in the Marcellus shale gas industry, Cole said.

Fay-Penn paid $5.3 million for the 29 miles of track in 2006. Fay-Penn's executive director, Michael Jordan, did not have the sale price immediately available, but he said it was more than the $1 selling price listed on the property-transfer deed.

Southwest was familiar with the line because it had been paying Fay-Penn $85,786 annually to lease it, according to the nonprofit's 2011 annual report.

Russell A. Peterson, Carload's CEO, said Fayette Central's lease will not be renewed because of liability issues stemming from a “significant increase” in commercial rail traffic.

“The liability concern arises from the magnitude of liability that arises out of any accident involving the transportation of passengers,” Peterson said.

Steve Neubauer, chairman of Fay-Penn's board of directors, said the group bought the line in 1996 to save it from abandonment. The line since then has been “an important asset” to recruit new business to the county, Neubauer said, but maintenance and liability costs associated with the jump in commercial traffic prompted the sale.

Donna Myers, secretary for Dunbar Historical Society, said Fayette Central was a tourist attraction and she fears its loss will negatively impact tourism countywide.

“The train is just another draw for Fayette County, with everything else they have here,” Myers said, pointing to the Great Allegheny Passage bike trail and Nemacolin Woodlands Resort. “The train has just been such a wonderful thing for Fayette County and Dunbar, I will be sorry to see it go.”

Myers said train riders stopped at the historical society's center on Bridge Street during layovers. Its visitors' log has the names of riders from 30 states, including Hawaii, as well as Germany, Switzerland and China.

In addition to its regular season, the tourist train offered a number of annual themed rides, including an Easter Bunny Train, Pumpkin Patch Train and Santa Claus Train.

Vincent Zapotosky, Fayette County commissioner, said he is disappointed in Southwestern's decision, noting it turned down requests to reconsider and renew the lease.

“In the end, it was a business decision, sadly,” Zapotosky said.

Rowan said it's uncertain what will happen to Fayette Central's locomotive and its two cabooses, which are owned by other shareholders. The passenger cars were leased, he said.

The train's final trips will be its one-hour Santa Claus Trains, which are scheduled to run every Saturday through Dec. 22 out of Dunbar.

“People need to know that it's coming to an end, and if they want to come ride it, they have only a few chances left,” Rowan said. “It could be a very, very long time, if ever, before you get passenger service of any kind on that railroad again.”

Liz Zemba is a reporter for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-601-2166 or lzemba@tribweb.com.

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