BERLIN – When Don Fisher looked at the long abandoned train tracks just a stone’s throw from his house on Carey Road in Berlin a few months ago, he noticed something he found to be a bit strange — about 30 freight tanker train cars.
“I don’t know where they came from or how they got there, but that track has been offline for a few years,” said Fisher. “They just appeared out of nowhere a few days before the 4th of July and I never heard a thing.”
Fisher says the train cars have been there ever since, tucked back just behind the tree line just a few steps from Route 113 south, and he has now gone from wondering how they got there, to worrying what their presence means for the future.
“In this day and age, you start to worry about why they are there, who put them there, and what might be in those things,” said Fisher.
Eric Callaway is the president of the Maryland and Delaware Railroad Company (MDDE) and he assures Fisher and the rest of the folks in the community that they have nothing to worry about.
“We pushed them down there a few months ago for a client,” said Callaway. “There’s 30 cars there and another 70 on the same line a bit further north. They are empty, but at one time they were filled with crude oil.”
MDDE’s client is a company called PBF Energy, which is one of the largest independent petroleum refiners and suppliers of unbranded transportation fuels, heating oil, petrochemical feedstocks and lubricants in the United States. PBF has three refineries nationwide (Toledo, Ohio, Delaware City, Del. and Paulsboro, N.J.), and the 100 cars were pushed down to Berlin by MDDE from PBF’s Delaware location, according to Callaway.
“It’s something that happens quite often, especially on short line tracks that aren’t in service like the one near Carey Road in Berlin,” said Callaway. “It’s no different than parking a bunch of tractor trailer trucks somewhere when they aren’t in use.”
The all too familiar sound of the train rumbling through Berlin stopped abruptly in 2012 after a powerful August storm that some dubbed the “1,000 year storm,” dumped 15 inches of rain on the region, washing out a chunk of the track near Showell, knocking it offline. The train got rolling again a few months later, but eventually those trains came to a halt completely.
“It’s tough to run a short line track of 26 miles with only one or two customers, and that track needs a lot of work,” said Callaway, “but we’ve been working with the county folks as they have been studying the feasibility on this excursion train idea.”
The excursion train idea was presented to the Worcester County Commissioners in June by Stone Consulting, which was commissioned to do a feasibility study on potential routes and costs associated with running more tourism-focused trains to the track like the Wilmington Western Railroad in Delaware or the Strasburg Railroad Line in Pennsylvania rather than freight trains.
The first part of the study estimated the cost near $1.5 million, but the second and much more detailed part of the feasibility study is slated to be presented to the County Commissioners in coming weeks.
“I think Berlin and the surrounding region could support and sustain an excursion train like the Strasburg or the Wilmington Western,” said Callaway. “There’s a lot of work to do regarding repairs and building the necessary infrastructure to run an excursion track. Santa Claus won’t be coming to town by train this year, but I think it’s a real possibility in the near future.”
Worcester County Commissioner Bud Church has been a vocal supporter of the idea, and despite the higher cost, he is leaning toward the excursion train option that would go further south in the county (from Newark to Snow Hill). He admits he is quietly hoping that the numbers look good in the second part of the study.
“Look, the reality of it is this: the northern part of Worcester County is doing very well, but the southern end is not economically speaking,” said Church. “If an excursion train could get people to spend some time and money in the southern end of the county that would be fantastic. I would support it even if it just broke even, but we need to make sure it’s worth the investment and our taxpayers aren’t paying for something that doesn’t work.
While some are waiting for the numbers to come in to consider trains running on the local tracks once again, the only train cars you can see right now, are the empty ones parked near Don Fisher’s house just off the highway in Berlin.
According to Callaway, those train cars might be disappearing as early as next month.