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Sale of local rail line is set

Norfolk-Southern rail line from Hendersonville to Pisgah Forest has been sold to a shortline operator. Norfolk-Southern rail line from Hendersonville to Pisgah Forest has been sold to a shortline operator.

A Kansas-based short-line rail operator has reached a "definitive agreement" with Norfolk-Southern Corp. to buy three lines in Western North Carolina, including the Hendersonville-to-Pisgah Forest line that local advocates hope to convert into a greenway.

Watco Transportation Services, of Pittsburg, Kan., and its Blue Ridge Southern Railroad subsidiary filed paperwork with federal regulators on June 24 and could begin operating the Norfolk-Southern lines as soon as July 26. Blue Ridge Southern Railroad will operate 91.8 miles of track initially with 10 locomotives, the company said in a news release.
"The Watco team is excited to go to work with our great partners the Norfolk Southern to deliver quality service to our customers," Watco CEO Rick Webb said in a statement.
It was unclear whether the short-line operator has plans to activate the 19.8-mile Hendersonville-to-Pisgah Forest line that has been out of service since 2002. Watco officials did not immediately return a request for an interview on Friday afternoon.
Hunter Marks, president of the Friends of Ecusta Trail, said he had seen Watco's June 25 filing with the Surface Transportation Board. A Watco official he spoke with a few weeks ago said the company would talk about their plans after the sale is consummated. The Surface Transportation Board filing said that date is expected to be "on or after July 24."
In its official filing, Watco says it will acquire and operate a 47-mile line from Murphy Junction of Dillsboro, a 26-mile Asheville-to-East Flat Rock line that serves Kimberly-Clark, General Electric and other Henderson County freight customers, and the Hendersonville-Pisgah Forest segment. Annual revenue of the newly formed Blue Ridge Southern railroad will exceed $5 million, the company said. The company is acquiring the rail lines "for continued rail operations" and has no plans to "dispose of or alter properties subject to Board jurisdiction that are 50 years old or older."
Blue Ridge Southern Railroad on May 8 posted a notice about the pending track acquisition and said it would hire 32 people in Canton, Asheville and Hendersonville including a general manager, a trainmaster, 10 engineers, 10 conductors, a clerk, mechanic, electrician, roadmaster, track inspector and laborers.
Blue Ridge Southern officials met on Wednesday to brief Norfolk Southern employees on the transition and explain how they could apply for jobs with the short-line operator. The railroad said it expected to begin hiring immediately so it could operate without interrupting service.
"We see this cluster of rail lines around Asheville as a growth opportunity for Watco," Stefan Loeb, senior vice president of marketing for Watco, said in the news release. "We will have a marketing officer located in the community and will be looking to work with local communities to market the region."
The general manager and marketing officer will be named in the weeks ahead, the company said. Watco owns and operates 30 short lines on more than 4,600 miles of track.