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Phase 2 excursion train study short on numbers

(June 19, 2015) In what appeared to be a stumble for the Berlin-to-Snow Hill excursion train project, the phase 2 report on the plan spent considerable time proposing a Berlin-Delaware line run that was of no interest to the Worcester County Commissioners.

Further, that proposal was bolstered by a PowerPoint presentation not provided to the commissioners in advance.

“The presentation uses new data that’s about 4 days old,” Randall Gustafson, vice president of operations for Stone Consulting, the firm leading the excursion train charge, said. Commissioner Chip Bertino voiced concern over the inability to review the information.

Gustafson advocated for the Berlin line north because of what he said was its suitability for so-called “feature trains,” or trips centered on a character or event, such as a tie-in to the Polar Express movie.

The featured events, Gustafson maintained, are the bread and butter of an excursion train operation, drawing ridership from local, rather than tourist, traffic and bolstering profitability in the off-season.

“I don’t see much attraction moving north from Berlin,” Commissioner Ted Elder said.

“For me,” Commissioner Bud Church agreed, “I don’t see the advantage of going north from Berlin. The idea is to bring people down into the county, and there’s more advantage to going south rather than north.”

“[Train operations] are more dependent on capital costs and where the money is,” Gustafson said, adding that the route the train might eventually take didn’t matter.

The capital costs are rehabilitating the tracks and installing or improving facilities to service the trains or to provide ancillary support for train operations, like a gift shop.

How fast the train will move will dictate the level of rehabilitation. The lowest level, not recommended by Stone Consulting, would result in a net replacement of 26.1 percent of the existing track and allow for speeds of 15 mph. The recommended level, allowing speeds of 25 mph would result in a 39.1 percent replacement of the existing track.

The total costs to rehabilitate the track are dependent on what route the excursion train would take. While it appears certain the train would not travel north of Berlin, how, where and at what speed it would make its way through Berlin to Snow Hill and points in-between would change the cost, according to Gustafson’s report.

Five routes were outlined in the phase 2 report, including Berlin to the Delaware State line; Berlin to Newark, Newark to Snow Hill, a Snow Hill “special event” loop and Snow Hill to Berlin.

The Snow Hill “special event” loop is the shortest and cheapest option, presupposing it operates in tandem with another station at an estimated $1.2 million. Next is Snow Hill to Newark at almost $1.7 million. Berlin to Newark is estimated to be almost $2 million, and the longest stretch, Berlin to Snow Hill is just a bit more than $3 million, according to Gustafson’s PowerPoint presentation.

“This report outlines what needs to be done,” Economic Development Director Bill Badger said, “It’s a deal involving a private partnership with a private partnership.”

The first private partnership would be the railroad, Maryland and Delaware Railroad, and the second would be the operator of the train, an as-yet-undetermined entity.

“I’ve got two operators on the line. The word is out on this project and it’s reaching critical mass,” Gustafson said.

Tickets, Gustafson estimated, would cost around $15 for a normal excursion trip and were estimated between $35 and $40 for a feature trip, though Gustafson himself said he would not endorse a $40 price tag.

The commissioners took no action on the report.


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