With hauling halted, Kiski Junction Railroad turns focus to sightseeing
Forced to cut back on hauling freight from a steel mill and a coal mine, Gilpin Township's Kiski Junction Railroad still chugs along as a booming tourist attraction.
All of its scheduled fall and Christmas tours are sold out, filling the train's antique coach car with a total of about 3,000 passengers. The autumn foliage tour follows the railroad's line for nine miles north along the Allegheny River.
According to a homemade sign at its entrance, 71 people live in Schenley, which, if accurate, means more people ride the train in one trip to see nature's leaf show along the Allegheny River than live in this riverside enclave of Gilpin.The railroad's popularity is in part because of the fact it is the only tourist train in Southwest Pennsylvania, according to the Pennsylvania Tourism Office.
Although commercial interests have dimmed, the 160-year-old rail line has a history of reinvention from a segment of the Pennsylvania Main Line Canal to a rail line for the Pennsylvania Railroad.
In recent decades, the short line transported material from Allegheny Technologies Inc.'s Bagdad plant in Gilpin and coal from Rosebud's Logansport mine in Bethel Township.
“Business has been good,” said Bob Reddinger, supervisor of operations.
“With the mill closing down, we lost revenue, but we are still plugging away,” he said. “The tourist train helps. Hopefully, the coal industry will pick up.”
Armstrong County Commissioners Chairman Pat Fabian said that the county has been affected by downturns in the Marcellus shale natural gas, coal and steel industries.
“What's great about the Kiski Junction, even though they have been hit commercially, they are still able to jump into tourism and show off some of the county's great assets like the river,” he said.
Reddinger credits the railroad's tourism success to a dozen volunteers including engineers, conductors, car hosts and even the ticket agent.
Business shrinking, but surviving
The cheery red rail cars pulled by a classic diesel switch locomotive are a shiny beacon in the SchenleyIndustrial Park, the last commercial vestige in a long string of tidy river camps and multiplying boat slips along the lower Kiski River and near its confluence with the Allegheny.
But the short line owes its long-term survival to commercial freight. It only began offering tours in 1996.
Short lines like the Kiski Railroad that haul commercial freight “are still an incredibly important part of our U.S. freight rail system with one of every four carloads touching a short line in origin or destination,” said Amy Krouse, spokeswoman for the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association in Washington, D.C.
Pennsylvania is home to 51 short lines, the highest density of any state in the country, according to the Association's 2014 guide.
While it primarily hauled steel scrap from ATI's Bagdad plant, the railroad was purchased in 2006 by Cliff Forest, who owns Rosebud Mining to haul coal from its Logansport mine in Bethel. Although owned by Forest, the two companies operate independently.
The state awarded a $4.3 million state grant in 2010 for a nine-mile spur connecting the railroad's base in Schenley to the mine in Bethel.
The downturn in the coal market has eliminated hauling by rail from the Logansport mine, at least for the moment, according to Reddinger.
The business from Allegheny Technologies Inc.'s Bagdad plant hauling scrap dried up earlier this year because of falling steel prices and a flood of cheap imports, which the industry has blamed primarily on China.
“The future restart will depend upon future business conditions,” said Dan Greenfield, ATI spokesman.
The railroad still has some commercial business. It transfers dry bulk goods from Norfolk Southern trains to Armstrong Terminal Inc., located at the former Schenley whiskey distillery. It's a mere quarter-mile jaunt but an integral one, as it's the only way to move goods from the Norfolk Southern line to Armstrong terminals to a river barge or a trailer truck.
The short line and the terminal are both rarities: Armstrong Terminal is the only river terminal immediately north of Allegheny River Lock No. 5.
They are working with the Kiski Junction to transfer cattle feed supplement from Norfolk Southern, which it stores and distributes by trucks to animal feed mills and to farms, according to Sam Lansberry, controller with Armstrong Terminal Inc. The terminal also has facilities to bag goods.
The terminal handles anthracite coal it receives by rail via the Kiski Junction Railroad, which is eventually loaded onto barges for steel mills along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, he said.
Reddinger is looking into more freight traffic.
“There's hope for the future,” he said. “And we still plan on next year's tourist trains.”
Mary Ann Thomas is a Tribune-Review staff writer. She can be reached at 724-226-4691 or firstname.lastname@example.org.