City, county seeking to buy ETRY rail line

Photo by Kristen Luther
Elizabethton and Carter County governments are seeking to purchase 10 miles of rail line within the county currently owned by East Tennessee Railway.

     By Thomas Wilson
star staff
  An interest by city of Elizabethton and Carter County governments to purchase a 10-mile stretch of rail line owned by East Tennessee Railway (ETRY) has prompted negotiations with the company's owner.
  County Mayor Dale Fair said on Tuesday the two governments had communicated an offer to purchase the rail line in a letter to the owner of ETRY's parent company Rail Management and Consulting Company (RMC) based in Panama City, Fla.
   "We have been involved in doing a study in a salvage value of the interactive railroad," Fair said.
  Elizabethton City Manager Charles Stahl said Wednesday that the governments were not purchasing the rail line with a definitive plan of its future use. The two governments commissioned a rail line acquisition study by the Shenandoah Northern Company of Knoxville earlier this year. The cost of the study - estimated at less than $3,000 by Stahl - was shared by the city and county.
  The rail line acquisition plan states ETRY would continue common carrier rail service over the entire rail line including the core Johnson City portion of track and the 10 miles of rail line in Elizabethton. The study states the rail line ownership could fall under a new entity named the Carter County Rail Authority.
  The acquisition study states the deal would require a net liquidation valuation of the rail line, an operating lease, trackage rights agreement, a track maintenance agreement and other agreements regulated by the Federal Railroad Administration and Tennessee Department of Transportation.
  "We are looking into acquiring it, if it is for sale, for the greater good of the community," Stahl said. "I don't think the city and county are getting into the debate at this point whether the rail line should be purchased (for a specific use)."
  President of RMC, Earl Durden, did not return a telephone call on Wednesday seeking comment about the purchase proposal.
  Acquiring the rail line would retain the existing railway connection to Johnson City's larger railway system if manufacturing or other industries in need of rail transportation set up shop in Elizabethton.
  East Tennessee Railway is one of 14 short line railways owned by RMC. ETRY interchanges with CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern in Johnson City. The railroad effectively ceased rail transportation service to Elizabethton last year shortly after all but one area shipper ended using rail service. The acquisition plan found ETRY's rail operations in Johnson City remained profitable and business had been growing since 2003 when CSX Transportation granted the railway operating rights to all CSX shippers in the Johnson City switching limits.
  The railway roots go back to 1866 when the railway was chartered as the East Tennessee and Western North Carolina Railroad, which extended a rail line from Johnson City to Boone, N.C. RMC purchased the railroad in 1983.
  The 10 miles of ETRY rail line track and various related structures existing in Elizabethton remain intact. The city and county's purchase proposal includes the rail track and property where the line extends. The proposal does not include purchasing rail cars or locomotives.
  Acquiring the rail line could mean more than rail transport. The proposal mentions a plan by the Watauga chapter of the National Railway Historical Society to operate a passenger excursion service between Elizabethton and Johnson City. The society has operated passenger excursions in cooperation with Amtrak, Norfolk Southern Railway, CSX Transportation, and ETRY in past years, according to the plan.
  Stahl and Fair said retaining the railway meant keeping the option economically viable to the community regardless of the ultimate use of the rail line.
   "When I say economically viable I mean all aspects of it from commercial to tourism," Fair said. "I don't know if it is feasible but we are exploring what we can do or can't do."