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Local authorities join new appeal to preserve New River railroad line

Local proponents of efforts to save an historic rail line running through Anderson, Campbell and Scott counties have filed a new appeal with the U.S. Surface Transportation Board to try to overturn the board’s Sept. 25 decision that would allow for immediate removal of the tracks and a permanent closing of the line.

The North East Tennessee Railroad Authority, whose chair is Anderson County Mayor Terry Frank, joined the Oklahoma-based Arkansas-Oklahoma Railroad Co. – or AOK -- in seeking a re-hearing in the case, in which the board denied an earlier appeal that could have saved the line.

Frank has been leading efforts to save the 42-mile railroad line that runs from Oneida, in Scott County, to Devonia, in remote southwestern Anderson County, since well before Kentucky-based R.J. Corman Railroad Co., owner of the line, filed a notice of planned abandonment with the STB in March.

The latest appeal, filed Oct. 13, seeks to overturn the board’s ruling, by a 2-1 vote on Sept. 25, and is based on some new evidence and arguments intended to bolster the case for saving the line, Frank said Monday.

“We just need to change one mind,” Frank said, referring to the narrow loss in the Sept. 25 vote that could be reversed if only one of the two commissioners changes positions and votes to save the line.

“We’re hoping and praying,” Frank said. “The commissioner who sided with us said he believed we met all of the requirements, but in this new petition, we did address some of the questions the other members had. …We gave them new information that hopefully will be of benefit. I’m really hopeful.”

Tennessee has $1.7M invested

One argument in the new filing points out that R.J. Corman is not the only entity invested in the line, which it bought from National Coal Corp. in 2010.

“Over $1.7 million in tax dollars went toward rehabilitation of the line from the North East Tennessee Railroad Authority,” Frank said. “Some of that came as late as 2012. I just don’t believe that’s what anyone intended [the abandonment of the line just a few years later] when that money was invested by the state.”

AOK wants to buy the line and reopen it for freight service, and might eventually contract to put another tourist train on the line as well. But the STB says tourist trains are not considered as legitimate uses for a rail line that is up for abandonment and interested parties are trying to force a sale through the board’s Offer of Financial Assistance or OFA program.

Frank and others in Anderson, Scott and Campbell counties want to preserve the line through the scenic New River valley for future economic development, including timber harvesting and coal mining, among other potential uses.

“This is not just about this 42-mile line,” Frank said. “This is about any community that wants to keep rail and how the commission is going to rule. The larger issue is about communities keeping their railroad services.”

The STB’s Sept. 25 decision was based on R.J. Corman’s contention that there is no prospect of future commercial freight operations on the line, which has not seen trains run since a coal mine at Devonia closed in early 2013.

But Frank said she is encouraged about prospects for getting the decision reversed because the STB rejected the appeal on the 2-1 vote, with the current vice chairman, Martin J. Oberman, filing a dissenting opinion siding with the local Tennessee authorities and AOK.

“Given the strong dissent by the vice chairman, I think it would be worth the effort [to seek a reconsideration],” Frank said. “He’s the vice chairman and also an attorney. To me it looks like he’s making a larger stand for communities wanting to preserve rail service.”

“I personally believe that we showed a need from both a commercial perspective, as well as a community perspective, that the line should be saved,” Terry said after the Sept. 25 denial. “My own opinion is that we should go over and above in efforts to preserve this vital rail infrastructure.”

The North East Tennessee Rail Authority was created by the Tennessee legislature to manage and preserve railroad assets, and the mayors of all three counties are members of its operating board.

STB says ‘no active shippers’

In its original decision, the STB said that the proposed buyer (Arkansas-Oklahoma Railroad) had not “sufficiently demonstrated ‘a continued need for rail service’ on the line,” adding that the line had “no active shippers.”

According to the STB, for the proposed buyer to win a bid for a rail line that is about to be abandoned under its rules, “an offeror must demonstrate through evidence that there is a continued need for rail service on the line.”

Statements supporting the bid by Arkansas-Oklahoma Railroad, based in Wilburton, Oklahoma, were filed by Anderson, Scott and Campbell county governments, the North East Tennessee Rail Authority, and others, including two proposed shippers on the line – National Coal Co. of Knoxville and Evergreen Packaging Co. of Pioneer. Both said they hoped eventually to ship coal and timber, respectively, on the line at some point.

The STB said that while the purchase offer (Offer of Financial Assistance, or OFA) by Arkansas-Oklahoma Railroad and the statements submitted by the other parties showed that there was “community support for preserving the Line,” but that they provided “no specific detail demonstrating any commercial need for rail service.”

The board also dismissed the use of the line by the planned passenger rail excursion company, saying that provisions allowing a forced sale under an OFA require future use of such a line only for freight shipments, and that passenger service does not qualify.

The STB’s decision would allow a trail consortium to continue working with R.J. Corman on an agreement to turn the line into a hike-and-bike trail, which would at least preserve the right of way for future use as a rail line, if necessary. But the steel rail and ties would be removed, and any reinstallation of those could be cost-prohibitive, Frank said.

Members of the trail consortium are the Cumberland Trails Conference and the Tennessee Citizens for Wilderness Planning.

Rail line got its start in 1889

Owned by Norfolk Southern Corp. (formerly The Southern Railway) from 1973 until Knoxville-based National Coal Corp. bought it in 2006 for $2 million, the line was begun in 1889 and extended to its current terminus at a now-abandoned coal preparation plant at Devonia in 1912.

When National Coal was on the verge of bankruptcy in 2010, it sold the line to R.J. Corman for $3 million, and it was used to haul coal out of the Fork Mountain area from a deep mine until that operation shut down in 2013. Since then, the line has not been used, and has fallen into disrepair.

Part of the line from Huntsville in Scott County to Indian Fork in Anderson County did have a short life as a tourist excursion route from 2008 to 2010 when Scotty Phillips, owner of the New River General Store at Devonia, and business partner Jimmy Byrge of Knoxville started the New River Scenic Railway.