Tour ideas roll in as Gaston hunts for train operator

A railroad dinner car suitable for romantic meals, a Polar Express train ride to McAdenville during Christmas holidays, a Panthers Express rolling into uptown Charlotte or a bed-and-breakfast train.

These are some of the ideas Gaston County leaders are considering as they prepare to help the state find a new operator for a 12-mile stretch of rail line.

Built in 1911 by tobacco and electric power mogul James Buchanan Duke, the Piedmont & Northern Railway hauled passengers between Gastonia and uptown Charlotte before shutting down in the 1950s.

It then became a freight route that eventually played out in Gaston County and was slated for abandonment. In 1991, the N.C. Department of Transportation bought the unused portion between Gastonia and Mount Holly from CSX Transportation, preserving it until the time was right for revival.

Eight years later, at the direction of the state legislature, N.C. DOT began an approximately $6.5 million restoration of the corridor, and Gaston County contributed $500,000 toward the project.

Patriot Rail Corp., a privately owned, short-line holding company now based in Jacksonville, Fla., had the winning bid to operate the revived railroad and began freight operations in 2012.

But Dan Freeman, Patriot Rail vice president commercial, said business on the line hasn’t met expectations, and the company won’t renew its lease, which expires in November 2015. The company had only four active customers, and they didn’t ship consistently, he said.

The company wants to leave the lease early, county officials say.

Even so, Freeman feels the rail line eventually will be successful. So do county and state leaders. Patriot wasn’t aggressively working the contract or marketing the line, said County Commissioner Joe Carpenter.

Gaston officials recently met with Gov. Pat McCrory to pitch rail tourism as a possibility for the line, in addition to freight service. They also wanted a voice in the selection process when N.C. DOT’s rail division picks a new operator for the railroad in October.

Gaston County Commission Chairman Tracy Philbeck said the county will be represented on the selection committee and that McCrory was “very receptive” to rail tourism ideas.

“Our No. 1 primary objective is to maximize the line with freight traffic,” said Philbeck. “We’re looking for an operator that can develop the line and also have a travel and tourism component. We have an opportunity to directly impact Gaston and the region if we have an operator that understands a short line.”

Despite Patriot Rail’s experience, he’s still believes the short line that connects with Norfolk-Southern and CSX Transportation railroads is a “huge asset.”

Donny Hicks, executive director of the Gaston County Economic Development Commission, said the county will know in 60 to 90 days whether an Israeli plastics company will build a 75,000-square-foot plant along the P&N tracks in north Belmont. The $14 million investment would provide 75 new jobs and use 400 to 600 rail cars a year, he said.

Travel & Tourism officials looked at rail tourism projects in New York, Ohio and Wisconsin.

At the meeting with McCrory, Gaston leaders floated such rail tourism ideas as a dinner car and Polar Express rides to Christmas Town USA.

Running a train from Gaston to uptown Charlotte for Panthers’ games “might be a long shot,” said Gaston Travel & Tourism Director Walt Israel. “But it would be so much fun and a great way to manage traffic flow.”

Another possibility is a bed-and-breakfast operation in vintage train cars from the 1930s and ’40s, parked on the rails near some place like downtown Belmont where people could eat and shop.

Israel said that while McCrory appeared to see the viability of rail tourism, “he also sees the liability. That’s something we’d have to deal with.”

Rail Division Director Paul Worley also said rail tourism raises concerns about liability and safety, but it’s been done by other short lines. “There are a lot of different options,” he said. “The key is the right business model that produces a return on investment.’

Meanwhile, he described the parting of ways between the state and Patriot Rail as “an amicable situation.” He said the company, which has had some changes since the original lease, has agreed to continue running the line until a new operator can be found.

While things didn’t work out for Patriot, Worley believes the line “presents a good opportunity for economic development.”

The state’s first priority is getting the railroad connected with “an experienced, viable operator,” he said. “I think we’ll get good bids. Last time, there was quite a bit of interest.”

The line connects with CSX in Mount Holly and Norfolk Southern on Broad Street in Gastonia.

In a letter to Philbeck, Worley wrote that “very few rail corridors in North Carolina have the advantage of connecting to both Norfolk Southern and CXS Transportation – a fact that should be exploited by economic developers once a strong operator is in place.”

The state plans to have a new operator in place sometime in January.

“N.C. DOT is committed to the long-term preservation, maintenance and operation of the Piedmont & Northern corridor,” Worley wrote. “It is very reassuring to know that Gaston County shares this vision and wants to be actively involved in the P&N’s future.”