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Rail segment needed for Ecusta Trail is sold

Hendersonville-to-Pisgah Forest railroad line crosses the French Broad River at Horse Shoe. Hendersonville-to-Pisgah Forest railroad line crosses the French Broad River at Horse Shoe.

In a development closely watched by the Friends of Ecusta Trail, Norfolk Southern has sold its Hendersonville-Pisgah Forest line to a Kansas company that specializes in short line rail transportation.

 


Watco Transportation Services, of Pittsburg, Kan., was the winning bidder for three Norfolk Southern lines totaling 92 miles in Western North Carolina. A Watco vice president said the company has plans to aggressively market freight service along the currently operating short line segments, although he made no commitment on plans for the Hendersonville-Pisgah Forest line that has been inactive since 2002.
"At a certain point we will file a plan with the Surface Transportation Board and take over operation of that line," Ed McKechnie, Watco's chief commercial officer, told the Hendersonville Lightning. "I would expect in the next couple of weeks we will have a media release when we have that filing outlining all our plans."
McKechnie would not comment specifically on what plans the new owner might have for the Hendersonville-to-Pisgah Forest line.
"Our focus will be primarily on the existing lines and the existing customers but we want to also work with the local community in growing our business," he said. "We will have a fulltime marketing officer in that area to try to grow that business. We want to acquire customers."
Asked specifically about the local campaign to railbank the Hendersonville-to-Brevard line for the Ecusta Trail, McKechnie said he could not commit.
"We always talk to the local community," he said. "Until we actually file with the STB, I just don't want talk about anything else."
The acquisition includes a 47-mile line from Murphy to Dillsboro, the 26-mile run from Asheville to East Flat Rock, which currently serves Kimberly Clark, General Electric and other customers; and the 19.8-mile Hendersonville-to-Pisgah Forest line. Watco will operate the segments as Blue Ridge Southern Railroad.
Friends of Ecusta Trail President Hunter Marks said the group is watching the transition with great interest.
"We'd like to contact Watco and say 'this is who we are and this is what we'd like to do and this is our plans for the line and maybe we could meet with you and talk about it,'" he said. "I think it would be good news in the fact that I think Watco might be a little more open to talk to — Norfolk Southern being notoriously hard to talk to. We just don't know. As we've said many times there's zero business on this line, zero. There's just a lot of unanswered questions."
The acquisition creates a gap in the Spartanburg-to-Asheville line that climbs the famed Saluda Grade. Because "the line has not hosted through traffic in more than a decade, the sale of the northern part of the route makes its reactivation even less likely," Trains magazine said in a story about the ownership change.
Watco plans to add 32 positions in Canton, Asheville and Hendersonville to operate the line. McKechnie said the company would interview Norfolk Southern employees who are interested in working for Watco.
An economic impact study by the city of Hendersonville has estimated the cost of acquiring the rail line at $1.5 million to $3.7 million with construction costs projected at $10 million to $13 million in 10 phases — six in Henderson County and four in Transylvania County. The economic impact study said the trail could generate $9.4 million a year in tourism revenue and higher property values along the trail.