By Evan Brandt, The Mercury
POSTED: 09/18/14, 4:45 PM EDT
POTTSTOWN — The dream of establishing luxury rail service between the nation’s capital and the storied Greenbrier Resort in
West Virginia — and of building that train in Pottstown — died on the auction block Thursday.
Ross Rowland, president and CEO of the Greenbrier Express, said the auction of the nine passenger cars, equipment, tools and railroad ephemera marked “the end of the Greenbrier project.”
The project was bankrolled by Appalachian coal billionaire Jim Justice, the owner of the resort, as a way to attract more high-profile visitors to the resort and restore some glamour to rail travel.
“The essence of the project is to move the front door of the Greenbrier 253 miles from White Sulfur Springs, W.Va., to Washington, D.C.’s Union Station,” Rowland told The Mercury in February 2011 when he brought the project to Pottstown.
The work, which at its peak employed 48 people here, was undertaken in one of the buildings of the former Bethlehem Steel plant, now named the Pottstown Industrial Complex.
And that’s where its assets were sold.
Bidders, cell phones glued to their ears as they consulted with buyers, prowled the cement floor Thursday morning while a small crowd followed the bid call of the Blackmon Auction Co. auctioneer as he made his way down the row of equipment, ranging from a pallet of fire extinguishers, to metal cabinets, to massive wheel trucks and suspension springs.
“That’s less than a Honda Civic,” the auctioneer joked as he tried to goose the bidding upward on the auction’s main event, the nine passenger cars.
With names like “
Istanbul,” “ Monterey” and “ Grand Canyon,”
the cars sold for as much as $135,000 a piece to as little as $10,500.
That was what Chuck Jensen — vice president and chief operating officer of the M & E. Railroad in
N.J. — paid for the last car, named “ Paris.”
Some of the cars had been gutted, “tunneled” in train lingo, down to the aluminum and steel floors and arched roof, while others still had elements of dining cars and sleepers.
Audubon resident Richard Stewart, retired from Lockheed-Martin after 46 years as a principal systems engineer, sat in one of the booths Thursday morning and decided not to bid.
“It’s not what I’m looking for,” said Stewart, who wants to tour the nation by rail in a private rail car with his wife Kathy. “I’m looking for a car that’s finished.”
Roger Lehmann was also on hand, to see if there was anything of value for the Colebrookdale Railroad.
He did not bid on the cars. “They’re the wrong era,” he said, noting they are from the 1950s and 1960s and the Secret Valley Line excursion railroad being established between Boyertown and
is shooting for a turn of the century feel.
Lehmann, who did buy some tools for his work crews, was amazed at how little some of the cars were selling for.
“Just the steel in these cars is worth more than $10,000,” he said after the “
was sold. But hopefully, they will not be cut up for scrap, he said. “That
would be a crime.”
The auctioneer agreed.
“If you sheer and cut these cars, the ghosts of railroads past will haunt you and kill you in your sleep,” he joked.
What killed the Greenbrier Express was economics, said Rowland.
When the recession combined with the fall in the price of coal — due to Chinese competition, environmental regulations that closed older coal-burning power plants and competition from cheaper natural gas — the cash Justice had available to continue the project dried up, said Rowland.
“This was strictly a cash flow issue,” said Rowland.
It was too soon to tell Thursday, he said, just how much cash flowed from the auction.
To see 80+ photos from the auction click on this link: