SNOW HILL – An initial feasibility study indicates there is potential for an excursion railroad operation in Worcester County, but that a number of physical issues would need to be addressed first.
Infrastructure improvements would need to be made to the railroad track itself and boarding locations would need to be built before a tourist train could be up and running between Berlin and Snow Hill, according to a report presented Tuesday to the Worcester County Commissioners.
Randy Gustafson of Stone Consulting, the company that handled the feasibility study, said the main issue was the track, which is currently being used by Maryland and Delaware Railroad Co. freight trains. He said it needed to be improved in areas and that passing sidings in Berlin and Newark had to be built.
“It needs help,” he said. “It needs additional ties. It’s not necessarily a lost cause.”
Gustafson said that for the feasibility study, his company looked at both the physical aspects of the local railroad as well as the area’s population and demographics. With the summer population of Ocean City and the number of second homes in the area, Gustafson said the county had the people the railroad would need to be economically viable. He estimated a tourist train through the county would attract close to 77,000 riders a year.
“You’ve got scads of visitors,” he said, “but you’re probably going to get one percent.”
Because the county’s main attraction in the summer months is the beach, Gustafson said the best thing for an excursion railroad to do would be to focus on attracting customers in the fall and winter. He said there was no reason for the railroad to compete with the beach.
“You can own the fourth quarter,” he said.
Excursion railroads in other parts of the country have been very successful at attracting riders with trains geared toward special events — such as visits with Santa — or trains with particular themes — such as the Polar Express, Gustafson said.
“Non-traditional events are cleaning up nationwide,” he said.
Along with being geared toward the shoulder season, Gustafson said another key component of success for an excursion train in Worcester County would be its visibility to visitors.
Although the track passes and even crosses the road in some areas, such as on Route 50 in Berlin, Gustafson said the county would need to look at promoting the railroad with billboards and other signage, particularly because the existing depot in Snow Hill was out of the way.
“If you can’t get visibility, you’ve got a problem,” he said.
Other issues the county would need to take into account before launching an excursion train include storage — the need for a building large enough to house the train cars — and boarding locations.
“You’ve got to have a platform alongside the track,” he said. “There’s nothing available today.”
As far as storage, Gustafson said the former Tyson facility in Berlin had potential.
Gustafson recommended a second study to identify specific improvement costs for the track and to develop a business plan for the railroad. That study would also involve an economic impact analysis.
Commissioner Judy Boggs agreed that more information was needed before officials could decide whether to move forward with the train.
“I think this is a really exciting project, but we have to look at more details,” she said.
Commissioner Virgil Shockley questioned how the track improvement would be funded.
“I never doubted you’d get people [for an excursion railroad],” he said, “It’s just who’s going to put the money up.”
Bill Badger, the county’s economic development director, said he was going to put together information on the cost of a second study and would approach the commissioners with that information in the near future.