Future of Elizabethton railroad uncertain

By Bob Robinson
Star Staff

   The future of East Tennessee Railway (ETR), the shortline railroad serving Elizabethton since 1983, is uncertain due to a shrinking customer base caused by local plant closings.
   Michael Durden, president of Rail Management Corp., Panama City, Fla., which manages ETR, said the company's operation in Elizabethton was profitable until about four or five years ago when North American Rayon closed.
   "That closing reduced ETR's revenue by two-thirds," Durden said.
   When another "good customer," Alcoa Extrusions, ceases to operate in Elizabethton in June, it will further erode ETR's revenue stream, he added.
   "We have scaled back our expenses to the point we could. We are down to two employees, operate five days a week and use one of the smallest locomotives. We are barely hanging on," Durden said.
   RMC operates 13 railroads in 11 states, including the Johnson City to Elizabethton shortline railroad which has 11 miles of track.
   "We don't have much business in Elizabethton now beyond Inland Container Corp. We've not made any decision to abandon the railroad or to cease operations in Elizabethton, however.
   "If such a decision is made, we would like to meet with local business leaders to see if something could be worked out to save the railroad," he said, adding, "We would attempt to sell the railroad before pulling up the track."
   Some counties and cities have formed a railroad authority, purchased rights-of-way and had someone operate the railroad for them, he explained.
   Durden was complimentary of the Tennessee Department of Transportation. "The State of Tennessee collects fuel tax from Class I railroads and allocates funds to shortline railroads (like ETR) for track, bridge improvement and infrastructure," he said.
   Durden said he attended a meeting about three or four years ago with representatives from Norfolk Southern, CSX Railroad, state officials, and industrial development and chamber of commerce representatives in Elizabethton.
   "There has also been a lot of discussion with existing customers. Thus far, we've had no success in locating new customers in Elizabethton," Durden said.
   Providing railway passenger service between Elizabethton and Johnson City is not viable, considering the low revenue potential and the liability, he added.
   The Web site for Rail Management Corp. is www.rail-management.com.