About 18 months after floods wrecked the railroad tracks between Trion and Summerville, Ga., putting the brakes on tourism passenger and freight service, a $3.02 million project will open the route again.
"This is a great opportunity for Chattooga County," County Commissioner Jason Winters said.
The repairs also will make freight service available to Mohawk Carpets and Smith Ironworks in Lyerly, two of the county's largest employers.
"First, it will be a big boost for tourism in the county," Winters said. "Second, we will get some of the rougher railroad crossings, like the one near CVS [in Summerville] fixed at no cost to us."
The Chattooga & Chickamauga Railway line now is serviceable for passenger excursions from 48th Street in Chattanooga to Chickamauga, with freight service available as far south as the Mount Vernon Textile Mills in Trion.
The seven-mile stretch of track that is being reopened to Mohawk and Smith hasn't been used in 20 years, said Donnie Owens, operations manager of the Chattooga & Chickamauga Railway.
Owens said the work involves replacing about 18,000 ties, upgrading some rails, switch ties and brush cutting. It also includes repairs to road crossings in Hamilton, Walker and Chattooga counties and some services and lining of the track, he said.
Before severe flooding damaged the track in September 2009, passenger and freight service stretched from Chattanooga to Summerville. The Georgia Department of Transportation moved quickly to get the line open to Mount Vernon Mills, which receives chemicals and coal by rail.
However, funding to restore freight and passenger service to Summerville was "put on hold" by tight state funding and a change of ownership of the railway company.
Georgia owns the rail line and leases it to Chattooga & Chickamauga Railway. That company is owned and operated by Genesee and Wyoming Inc., a Connecticut firm with operations in the U.S., Australia and the Netherlands. The company specializes in short-run rail lines.
"The funding has been in the budget for a while, but because of the economy the money wasn't made available," Winters said. "Well, now it is available."
The construction contract was signed Feb. 8. Winters believes the work could be done by May, but Owens guessed mid-June.
In Walker County, the floods had "a huge impact to the community as a whole," county coordinator David Ashburn said. "It washed out the base of the tracks and caused problems at crossings and stuff like that."
He said it took several months to repair the railroad, vital to industry users.
Of reopening the track between Summerville and Lyerly, Ashburn said that "where they quit using the line and did not maintain the road crossing - and all of these [areas] are in Chattooga County between Summerville and Lyerly - they came in and put asphalt over the tracks and covered them up because they had gone inactive on the line. So now they're going back down there and taking the asphalt up and redoing that track crossing so that they can open the line all the way down to Lyerly."
In the fall, passenger trains from Chattanooga often were coordinated with festivals and other events in Chattooga County. Passengers were allowed to get off the train at Summerville's Dowdy Park, where the state-built "turnaround" reverses the train's direction.
"It certainly has some potential to help us," said Chattooga County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director David Tidmore. "At this point, I'd like to see that work done."
Tidmore said many callers ask about the excursions and are disappointed when they find out they are not available.
Winters said extending the line to Lyerly will open opportunities as well.
"For instance, we could run a train from here to Lyerly on the day they have their Down Home Day festival," Winters said, referring to an annual September event. The train then would back up to the turnaround in Summerville.
Lyerly officials said they look forward to reaping some benefits.
"We've already got the wheels turning on what we can do with this," town council member Josh Wyatt said. "We've talked about maybe building a new depot - the old one burned down - and some other things. It could be a big boost for us, and we're throwing ideas around on things we might be able to do."
Officials with Mohawk Carpets and Smith Ironworks have indicated interest in using the line for shipping freight.
"I'm sure they will look into possible ways they can utilize it," Lyerly council member Robert Thompson said. "It could certainly help cut down the amount of truck traffic they have on Highway 114."
Correspondent Timothy Bradfield contributed to this story.
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