Short lines in Maryland, Massachusetts land deals for additional track

In early February, Massachusetts Coastal Railroad acquired the assets of Bay Colony Railroad, which in 1982 assumed operation of former Conrail lines that were purchased by the state of Massachusetts. Massachusetts Coastal Railroad

By Jeff Stagl, Managing Editor 

In early February, the Massachusetts Coastal Railroad (MCRR) got a bit larger. That’s when the short line officially acquired the assets of Bay Colony Railroad (BCLR).  

Under a purchase agreement, MCRR acquired the permanent freight easement to 35 miles of track that was operated by BCLR. Now, MCRR has expanded to operate 132 route miles of track and control an additional 44 miles of track owned by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT). 

MCRR will manage BCLR’s daily operations. Last year, MCRR applied to the Surface Transportation Board for approval of the transaction and was granted a favorable decision in December. As the track owner, MassDOT was consulted throughout the purchase process. 

Established in 1982, BCLR served North Dartmouth and Millis in southeastern Massachusetts. Launched in 2008, MCRR provides integrated freight-rail and logistics services throughout the South Coast of Massachusetts and southern New England, and interchanges with CSX. The short line now manages nearly 176 miles of track stretching from Framingham to Fall River, and New Bedford to Hyannis. 

The acquisition was an important step forward in providing efficient and environmentally friendly freight-rail service in Massachusetts, said MCRR President and CEO Chris Podgurski in an email. 

Mass Coastal 2 Mass Coastal now operates 132 route miles of track and manages an additional 44 miles of track owned by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation. Massachusetts Coastal Railroad

“Interestingly enough, these line segments are basically what’s left of the original Bay Colony Railroad,” he said. “It makes sense for the Mass Coastal to pick up these lines, as it makes the most commercial sense to protect the customers and guarantee their connections to national rail system going forward.” 

MCRR has built a strong relationship with CSX and MassDOT’s rail unit, Podgurski adds. The short line partners with the unit, Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) and CSX to provide a crucial rail connection to the national rail network that extends into Canada and Mexico. 

“Bay Colony [served] three customers in Dartmouth and Westport, [which] positioned us to acquire some additional rail users, as well,” Podgurski said. “The Bay Colony properties will enhance our freight shipping capabilities on behalf of Massachusetts businesses and residents.” 

MCRR plans to continue advocating for the preservation and expansion of transit rail in Massachusetts. The railroad’s lines are used for the CapeFlyer passenger-rail service and Cape Cod’s Polar Express Train in addition to industrial freight shipping in the Cape Cod area. Operated by the Cape Cod Regional Transit Authority in collaboration with the MBTA and MassDOT, the CapeFlyer runs between Boston and Cape Cod. 

Making freight rail more viable in Maryland 

Meanwhile, the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad (WMSR) recently acquired a dormant rail line in southwestern Allegany County — which had operated as the Georges Creek Railway — through a lease agreement. The scenic railroad has re-branded the line as its Georges Creek Division, which is structured as a separate business managed by WMSR. 

The railroad signed a 36-month lease with the line’s owner, Eighteen Thirty Group LLC. The lease will enable the railroad to diversify and expand, and pursue various revenue streams, including both passenger- and freight-rail opportunities, WMSR officials say. 

Over the past three years, WMSR has doubled the number of riders on its excursion options between Cumberland and Frostburg, Maryland. The railroad operates four-season excursions, dinner trains, family holiday-themed events and The Polar Express Train Ride. 

Also, CSX and various vendors over the years have occasionally approached the scenic railroad about providing limited freight-rail service that’s better suited to a detail-oriented short line rather than a large Class I, said WMSR Executive Director Wesley Heinz in an online post. WMSR provided some freight-rail service in 2021 but had limited space — particularly at its yard in Ridgeley, West Virginia — to handle more of the traffic. Now, the Georges Creek Division will provide additional freight access, said Heinz. 

WMSR The Western Maryland Scenic Railroad recently acquired a dormant line, which now is re-branded as its Georges Creek Division. The railroad aims to develop freight-rail business on the line. Western Maryland Scenic Railroad

“Our staff has spent countless hours imagining a revitalization of the railroad line and how WMSR can use their vision to bring economic development to the Georges Creek Valley through tourism and rail services,” he said. 

In 2006, the Eighteen Thirty Group and Georges Creek purchased the historic Georges Creek line out of bankruptcy, intending to maintain it. The previous railroad had provided rail and switching services for the former Verso paper mill in Luke, Maryland, but the railroad ceased operation in 2019 when the mill closed.  

Since 2021, WMSR has proposed multiple concepts to sustain the line’s potential, Heinz said. Now, the first order of business is addressing overgrown vegetation along the right of way, identifying safety needs and working with community leaders to encourage and diversify tourism throughout the Georges Creek Valley, he said. 

Maintenance work is required on the track to restore service, and portions of the line could be operational by late 2024. A main portion in need of repairs: a 400-foot stretch of track in Moscow that was washed out by a flood in 1996.