WALKERSVILLE, Md. (AP) — Twenty years ago, the Walkersville Southern Railroad was little more than an overgrown track and a crumbling train station. Today, that station serves 13,000 passengers a year, not for long-distance travel but for excursions along its four-mile-long track between Walkersville and Frederick.
Children, train buffs and couples out for a romantic evening are among those who ride the Walkersville rails, according to Brooke Kovalcik, who serves as administrator of the railroad.
Special rides start in the spring with Easter trains and continue through December with Santa trains. Excursions and dinner trains run May through October; charters are available year-round.
A dedicated group of 50 people, rail buffs all, keeps the Walkersville Southern Railroad operating.
Those volunteers got the 1941 freight switch locomotive, passenger cars from the Long Island Railroad and the dining car from the West Virginia Northern in shape to carry passengers. This meant hours of rebuilding, repainting and refurbishing.
History Trains passed through Walkersville from 1872 to 1972. In 1972, Hurricane Agnes destroyed the railroad bridge that spanned the Monocacy River and cut off rail traffic to Frederick. Penn Central Railroad, which owned the line, was already in bankruptcy. The railroad put the entire line up for sale; the state of Maryland bought the Maryland portion of the tracks.
The section north of Walkersville was used for freight, but the six miles of line from the Walkersville station to the Frederick station deteriorated.
For most of the 100 years the railroad operated, it was the lifeline from Walkersville to Frederick or north to Pennsylvania and the big cities of the Northeast. Dairy farmers shipped their products to market by rail.
George Wireman, who now lives in Thurmont, remembers boarding the train in Walkersville in 1939 at age 18 and going to the World’s Fair in New York City.
The interstate highway system began in earnest after World War II, and Americans were less interested in train travel after that, said Jim Baird, WSRR chief engineer and chief training instructor.
Passenger travel continued into the 1960s in Walkersville. In 1968, the owner of the line, the Pennsylvania Railroad, merged with the New York Central, creating the soon-to-be-bankrupt Penn Central line. Hurricane Agnes in 1972 was the last straw.
The train station deteriorated. Weeds and brush grew along the tracks. Train aficionados envisioned reviving the Walkersville train, if only as a source of entertainment.
Baird was among those who began clearing the tracks in 1991. He lives in Bealeton, Va., but he will travel for trains.
Baird and about 30 other volunteers cleaned up the tracks, located some scrap rail cars and brought them to Walkersville. They painted the rail cars. They reupholstered the seats.
Excursions began in 1993. At first, a maintenance car pulled the passenger rail cars. Then volunteers found a 1941 locomotive, which they restored. During World War II, the locomotive pulled troop cars, and was used for a variety of freight tasks before WSRR obtained it.
The locomotive is stored in a metal building that serves as WSRR’s engine house. WSRR engineers, firefighters and brake operators must meet the same standards as railway operators on commercial trains. “Just like Amtrak,” Baird said. “We have to go through a rigorous training course.” WSRR trains go 10 mph or slower, but still must meet all federal regulations for passenger railroads.
The Monocacy River bridge, which washed out in 1972, was rebuilt in 1993 with the help of grant money. The excursion trains now travel four miles from Walkersville to Md. 26, just north of Frederick. Someday, volunteers hope to have a couple of miles of track north of Walkersville open.
“Driving a train is similar to driving a car,” said engineer Ralph Douglas, who comes to WSRR from Warrenton, Va. The hardest part is the braking, he said. The train doesn’t respond instantly. “It’s the momentum from all that weight,” he said.
The rail cars weigh about 7 tons each. Four of the cars are late 1920s models used on the Long Island Railroad. The boarding ramp still bears the lettering “LIRR.”
Two modern coaches from the 1950s carry passengers. One is used regularly for the Santa trains. Those are the most popular rides, regularly drawing 600 people in a single day, according to Wayne Kirchof, president of the WSRR board of directors. Another passenger coach is a former Pullman troop sleeper car.
The late comedian Bob Hope reportedly stayed in the heavy Pullman sleeper car that is sometimes used for dining excursions.
Once part of a night train from San Francisco to Los Angeles, it is still outfitted with luxurious sleeping accommodations and dining areas. It was later used by the New Haven Railroad for business travel.
“In World War II, they ran the wheels off every train, and after the war, passenger service never caught back on,” Kirchof said. “In the ’50s, they came out with these beautiful passenger streamliners, but trains just didn’t catch on.” By then, the interstate highway system was being expanded.
An open-air car offers passengers another excursion option. Benches were added to a flatbed car for an outdoor experience.
Baird has always loved trains, whether they be model trains or the real thing. He is usually in Walkersville at least once a week to work on the trains and do a run.
“The volunteers do everything, even the laying of the railroad ties,” Baird said. A volunteer also takes a maintenance car along the track before excursions to make sure the track is clear.
Many of the volunteers are middle-aged and retired men, but younger people also get involved. Anthony Piechowski, 16, of Woodsboro, has always been interested in trains; he is training to be a brakeman. The only train ride he’s ever taken was from Phoenix to the Grand Canyon, but one day he hopes to be driving the WSRR.
Andrew Morris, 22, of Fredericksburg, Va., is a brakeman. When he was a young boy, his dad– who works for Amtrak– would take him to watch trains. He began volunteering with WSRR when he was 15.
David Dutton, 23, of Bealeton, Va., is WSRR’s youngest certified engineer. Two other young volunteers who trained with WSRR have since gotten jobs with Norfolk Southern and CSX freight lines.
Information from: The Frederick (Md.) News-Post, http://www.fredericknewspost.com.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)