by Geoff Fox
With a bill getting ready to be heard by Maryland officials in Annapolis, representatives from across the river wanted to tell Hancock officials they support and want to help get the MARC commuter train into Western Maryland.
Earlier this year, Town Advisor Bill Valentine told officials in Hancock a bill is before Maryland legislators that would give funding to bring the MARC trains to the rail yard across the river in West Virginia.
Those words caught the attention of Morgan County leaders who had previously worked to entice Maryland to bring the MARC trains to the area.
Bath Town Recorder Susan Webster and Morgan County Commissioner Sean Forney, who had come before Hancock officials in 2020 asking for their support in the effort, returned, bringing Morgan County Commissioner Bill Clark with them this time.
Webster said she had talked to Hancock Councilman Roland Lanehart, Jr. who mentioned the possibility of the MARC trains coming and also read an article in The Hancock News.
Efforts to bring the train service to this area has been going on for decades, Webster said, and Clark had previously worked on the project. She was also on the committee.
“It’s kind of had its fits and starts,” Webster said.
COVID was another setback.
After seeing The Hancock News article, she approached Forney about talking to Hancock officials, as well as those in Fulton County, about “getting the band back together” to advance a commuter train service to everyone’s advantage.
In reading the bill, Webster said it looks like there are other rail lines in more populous areas Maryland is looking at besides the MARC train to this area.
“But I do believe if the three states work together, that we could make some noise,” Webster said.
Clark said the group started talking about a rail line in 1999 and got an Appalachian Regional Commission Study done as well. MARC had agreed to do the study as well.
He also pointed out CSX was interested in doing the rail system at that times and wanted to it to happen.
CSX wanted to install a service station on the Berkeley Springs side of the river, too.
Clark said there would need to be a few upgrades such as switches and platforms but it wouldn’t have cost a large amount of money.
At that time, he said, the ridership would have been ready within five years to justify the train.
Clark said what might have gotten the ball rolling on the project was in the 1980s when West Virginia Senator Jay Rockefeller and his J-Train where federal officials would travel to the Eastern Panhandle and explore what each county had to offer.
There was also a concern a few years ago as to where to park the MARC trains. They ended up being parked in Martinsburg, but since then a disturbance has arose.
Webster noted while kept in Martinsburg, the trains would rumble and vibrate because they are not turned off.
This has caused issues for residents around the train yard there, so Webster suggested parking the trains at the Berkeley Springs rail yard where it wouldn’t disturb anyone or any infrastructure.
Soon after that, West Virginia Senator Robert C. Byrd found money to give Martinsburg to house those trains, leaving the Berkeley Springs train yard empty.
Forney said Morgan County officials had a meeting with MARC officials and they seemed open to the idea of bringing the trains west.
In reading the bill, Forney said there is a “significant importance” placed on Western Maryland with a possible end goal of the MARC line ending up in Cumberland.
“Not only does it create opportunities for people that are working,” Forney said, “but also on the weekends for economic tourism opportunities.”
Forney pointed to the C&O Canal, Berkeley Springs State Park, and other similar tourism draws in the area.
When asked why consider brining the train this far west, Forney said he asks “why not?” because the positive opportunities outweigh the negative ones.
Forney said the train coming the train yard in Morgan County could take time to actually reach Hancock and mentioned the bypass in Berkley Springs.
Forney said the bypass, which is set start construction in the coming months, had taken years to finally come to fruition, “sometimes takes 20 years for these things to blossom and seeing a bill like this certainly looks like it presents an opportunity for us to continue planting those seeds.”
Valentine said the consulting firm he works for, Greenwill Consulting, has been pushing in Annapolis recently and feels the bill will go through, but hasn’t gotten a hearing scheduled.
Once the hearings are set, Valentine said everyone involved should testify.
If and when the bill is passed, a feasibility study would have to be done, which would take up to two years. A second bill would have to get the train put in place.
Valentine said it would be almost four to five years before a train would pull into the station across the river.
“At least it’s in motion,” he said.