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Train buff pushing passenger service to Asheville

Train lover Larry Morton is pushing for an excursion train between Hendersonville and Asheville. [Lightning file photo] Train lover Larry Morton is pushing for an excursion train between Hendersonville and Asheville. [Lightning file photo]

Larry Morton’s survey of visitors to Hendersonville depot is decidedly unscientific, one might even say biased toward an answer he likes hearing.

If you could, he asks visitors to the Apple Valley Model Railroad Club exhibit at the historic depot, would you take a train to Asheville?
“Overwhelmingly, they say, ‘Yes, absolutely.’ I’m telling you, I am getting a lot of enthusiastic response to this,” Morton told the Seventh Avenue Advisory Committee on Monday night.
Morton knows that the threshold question is the same one that supporters of a rail-to-trail project must get answered. Would the owner of the tracks, Blue Ridge Southern Railroad, allow a use other than its sole stock-in-trade — freight service? When Morton put that question to Darl Farris, general manager of the Blue Ridge operation, he didn’t get a no.
Farris’s answer, Morton said, was: “We wouldn’t be averse to thinking about passenger service.”
“A green light went off in my head” and he started seriously pursuing a push for Hendersonville-to-Asheville passenger service.
Morton, who is president has taken on the sales job practically fulltime. He’s made presentations to the city’s Downtown Advisory Committee and the Western North Carolina Rail Committee and talked to officials in the rail division of the NCDOT.
“I’m doing one tomorrow for the Asheville Multimodal Transportation Commission and I’m doing one for the Tourism Development Authority. Those are the ones that I have scheduled so far.”
Kansas-based Watco Transportation Services, one of the largest short line operators, in the U.S., bought 92 miles of track from Norfolk Southern in 2014. The Blue Ridge Southern Railroad reaches as far west as Dillsboro. The southern-most point is East Flat Rock. Although he did not sound like he was ready to start boarding passengers, Farris did not completely dismiss the idea either.
“I talked to Larry a little bit about his ideas,” he said. “I have not had an opportunity really to listen to all of his ideas. Watco is a freight railroad. Our business is freight. But at the same time we’ve got business-minded people that are willing to listen if there’s a business model out there that might fit and might be mutually beneficial. We are a growing company and we’re aggressively looking for business opportunities.”
Morton appeared before the Seventh Avenue Advisory Committee, which oversees improvement in the historic district, in part because he wanted to warn the group to make sure Maple Street improvements don’t interfere with the needs of a passenger excursion train.
“In your plans to do Maple Street I would hate to see you do something and we wind up with a passenger train coming through here where you would have to rip up what you’ve built because of parking,” he said.
He said it wouldn’t be practical to use the depot for boarding because it contains the model railroad exhibit. He envisions instead a shelter for passengers and he said Farris was receptive to the idea.
“When we talked about this I asked him, ‘Would you be opposed to us building passenger shelters on your right of way?’ He said, ‘No, not at all.’”
Morton’s idea would be to have a morning and afternoon trips Wednesday through Saturday, with stops on Seventh Avenue and Biltmore Village. One of his ideas is that the train conductor would notify the Biltmore Estate of how many passengers were on board with plans to visit the attraction so Biltmore could send a shuttle. The class 2 track between the two cities allows passenger trains to travel up to 30 mph — faster than driving, Morton said, adding, “I timed it.”
“Asheville and Hendersonville are big tourist towns,” he said. When he pitched the idea to Henderson County Tourism Development Authority executives, they were “crazy about it,” he said. “Everybody I’m talking to is wildly enthusiastic to get this done.”