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Federal board puts hold on plans to erase historic railroad

The federal Surface Transportation Board last week ordered the R.J. Corman Railroad Co. to delay its planned uprooting of an historic rail line in Anderson, Scott and Campbell counties until further notice.

On April 15, the five-member board unanimously granted a request from Anderson and Scott counties to prohibit R.J. Corman from pulling up the tracks and ties of the 42-mile-long former Tennessee Railroad line running from Oneida to Devonia.

The two counties asked for the delay last June as they continue to fight R.J. Corman’s planned abandonment of the line.

Anderson County Mayor Terry Frank, who has been leading a legal battle to keep the rail line open, said the board’s order will allow time for the counties to complete an economic-impact study with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state of Tennessee focused on keeping the line available for freight traffic.

“[R.J. Corman] is directed not to consummate its abandonment pending further order of the Board,” the April 15 order stated.

“This is great news and gives us time to complete the EPA Economic Impact Analysis Study that will show the potential of the 42-mile line for our region,” Frank said in an email to The Courier News. “That study should be finalized very soon.”

If the line is not kept in place for freight traffic, the counties would like for it to be converted into a hiking and biking trail under a federal program that would preserve the right of way so it could be reopened as a rail line later, if needed.

In December, the EPA and the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation provided the money for the study, and hired Gregory A. Jones of Pittsburgh-based Civil & Environmental Consultants, Inc., to conduct the study, Frank said earlier.

“The analysis is looking at the impact for keeping the rail line alive/operational and any potential positive tourist impacts, or the economic impact of a trail if the line is removed and converted to trails,” the mayor said in early January.

“We are so very thankful for the EPA and this incredible opportunity.”

The study is an important step in the efforts of Anderson, Campbell and Scott counties to keep the rail line – which dates to the late 1800s -- from being destroyed and removed by its current owner, the Nicholasville, Kentucky-based R.J. Corman.

The three counties, which make up the North East Tennessee Rail Authority, have been working for more than three years to try to save the rail line, which Corman has asked the U.S. Surface Transportation Board for permission to abandon.

Last May, the Surface Transportation Board approved the abandonment of the rail line, which runs through part of remote western Anderson County, largely following the route of the New River.

Last week’s STB action means that the three counties have managed to keep the abandonment at bay with multiple challenges before the STB, which so far has stopped Corman from pulling up the tracks and closing the line permanently.

In a 4-1 decision, the STB denied an appeal in May 2021 by an Arkansas railroad company to allow it to buy the line from R.J. Corman using a process through the STB that would have forced the sale.

Arkansas-Oklahoma Railroad Co., which has since pulled out of the fight over the line, originally proposed to buy the line and rehabilitate it for proposed new freight customers. The line has been dormant since 2013, when the last customer – a coal-mining operation in the Devonia area – shut down.

In January 2021, Arkansas-Oklahoma Railroad failed in an attempt to reach an agreement with R.J. Corman to purchase the line outside the STB’s Offer of Financial Assistance program, through mediation that had been ordered by the STB.

The mediators said that despite two meetings with R.J. Corman Railroad and Arkansas-Oklahoma Railroad, “the parties ultimately were not able to reach a settlement,” and “the mediation has ended.”

The line had been used extensively for coal and timber operations in the region, but trains last ran on the tracks in 2013, when a coal mine at Devonia shut down. A tourist train, the New River Scenic Railway, operated briefly on the line between Huntsville and Devonia, but was shut down by R.J. Corman in 2010 shortly after Corman bought the line from Knoxville-based National Coal Co.

The line was owned by the Southern Railway Co. and later Norfolk Southern Railroad before being sold to National Coal Co.