U.S. board rejects deal to preserve rail line

The U.S. Surface Transportation Board has paved the way for the owner of an historic railroad line from Oneida to Devonia in Scott, Campbell and remote Anderson County to pull up the tracks and close the line permanently.

In a 4-1 decision last week, the STB denied an appeal by an Arkansas railroad company to allow it to buy the nearly 42-mile line from Kentucky-based R.J. Corman Railroad using a process through the STB that would have forced the sale.

Last September, the STB – in a 2-1 vote – denied a request by Arkansas-Oklahoma Railroad Co. to buy the line and rehabilitate it for proposed new freight customers. The line has been dormant since 2013, when the last customer – a coal-mining operation in the Devonia area – shut down.

In January, Arkansas-Oklahoma Railroad attempted to reach an agreement with R.J. Corman to purchase the line outside the STB’s Offer of Financial Assistance program, through mediation that had been ordered by the STB.

The mediators said that despite two meetings with R.J. Corman Railroad and Arkansas-Oklahoma Railroad, on Jan. 21 and 22, “the parties ultimately were not able to reach a settlement,” and “the mediation has ended.”

That left a motion pending before the STB seeking a reconsideration of the board’s September decision to deny an appeal of its earlier rejection of a bid by AOK to force a sale of the rail line.

Anderson County Mayor Terry Frank, who has been leading a local effort to save the historic rail line for economic-development purposes, said Monday that the only recourse now, at least through official channels, would be for Arkansas-Oklahoma Railroad to file an appeal of last week’s STB decision in federal court.

“I do not know what their plans are,” Frank said. “They may be looking at an appeal to a federal appellate court. I don’t know if they are going to just let it go, or appeal the decision. They know it needs to be done pretty quickly.

“I sure hope we don’t lose all the important work we’ve done to try to save the line,” said Frank, who also is chairman of the North East Tennessee Rail Authority, which includes Anderson, Campbell and Scott counties – through which the rail line runs.

“It’s a wonderful asset for us, and I think it has a bright future.”

Frank has been working with leaders of Scott and Campbell counties to try to preserve the rail line for at least three years, since the word first came out that R.J. Corman was planning to abandon it.

U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., has also contacted the STB to help in the local campaign to save the line, which dates to 1889.

In a letter late last year, Fleischmann said:

“I am writing in support of preserving the 41 miles of railroad line located in Scott, Campbell, and Anderson Counties, Tennessee, and I ask that you thoughtfully review the reconsideration petition from the North East Tennessee Rail Authority and the Arkansas-Oklahoma Railroad Company to allow for the purchase of this line owned by R.J. Corman (RJC).

“The projected business plan for this line, along with efforts to add new shippers, will have a positive annual economic impact. However, the abandonment and removal of the line in theses rural counties would have a negative impact on the local communities and damage their prospects for growth and development.

“Additionally, removal of the line would jeopardize any future utilization of energy reserves in these areas and eliminate Tennessee jobs,” he wrote.

The line has been used extensively for coal and timber operations in the region, but trains last ran on the tracks in 2013, when a coal mine at Devonia closed.

A tourist train operated briefly on the line between Huntsville and Devonia, but was shut down by R.J. Corman in 2010 shortly after Corman bought the line from Knoxville-based National Coal Co.