The South Branch Valley Railroad (SBVR) is owned and operated by the West Virginia State Rail Authority (SRA). The line provides freight and passenger service to the state’s eastern panhandle. It had formerly operated as the South Branch line of the Chessie System’s Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (now CSXT). When Chessie turned over the rail line to the state on October 11, 1978, West Virginia became the first state in the nation to both own and operate a commercial freight railroad.
The South Branch Valley Railroad comprises a 52.4-mile route from Petersburg to Green Spring where it links to the CSXT mainline connecting Cumberland, Md. to Martinsburg, W.Va. The SBVR generally parallels the South Branch of the Potomac River-from which the railroad takes its name. Crossing Hampshire, Hardy and Grant counties, the SBVR serves the towns of Romney, Moorefield and Petersburg. Primary categories of freight include grain, lumber, polymers and other chemicals. The railroad is headquartered in Moorefield. State employees perform maintenance and freight operations. A private operator under contract with the state runs the excursion train.
Freight service operates five days a week, Monday through Friday, with special and unit train operations on weekends as needed. The SBVR provides service to the Grant County Industrial Park, Petersburg; Moorefield Industrial Park; and Hampshire County Industrial Park, Romney. The SBVR’s largest customer is Pilgrim’s Pride in Moorefield. Pilgrim’s feed mill receives corn and other commodities used in the manufacture of its poultry feed. Three customers are located in Petersburg. Greer Lime ships outbound loads of lime to power stations and steel mills. Allegheny Wood Products ships finished lumber. Adell Polymers receives and ships loads of plastic pellets. Total carloadings on the SBVR average between 3,800 and 4,000 cars per year.
The Potomac Eagle excursion train runs on weekends during the summer and daily for the autumn-color season. Traveling out of Romney and through a scenic section of the South Branch Valley known as “The Trough,” the excursion train takes its name from the American bald eagles that are commonly sighted around the river by train passengers.
During its first ten years, the SBVR spent nearly $5 million on track improvements. In 1994, the railroad completed a $4 million bond-financed upgrade of its line. During the last four years, thirteen miles of heavy, welded rail have been installed and over 21,000 crossties have been replaced. A major bridge program has made it possible for the SBVR to raise its weight limit to 286,000 pounds per car. Three locomotives are being upgraded with microprocessor controls to increase their tractive effort and save fuel. Retention tanks are being installed on them to prevent waste oil from leaking on the ground.
Plans are in place to continue with capital improvements for the next several years. The improvements will include additional welded rail, crossties, ballast and roadbed widening. There will be additional work on bridges to maintain their capacity and, in some cases, replace them with culverts.
Flood of 1985
The devastating flood of November 1985 destroyed or severely damaged a substantial portion of the SBVR. The estimated 500-year flood heavily damaged five major bridges and damaged or destroyed 34 miles of track. After more than a year of construction, the SBVR was reopened for full-service in December 1987. Damage repairs totaled approximately $12 million.
By saving the South Branch Valley Railroad from abandonment in 1978 and rebuilding it following the flood of 1985, the State Rail Authority not only protected existing industry – and the estimated 1,200 jobs that relied on railroad service in the region – but also made possible its growth. Without the railroad, it is extremely doubtful that the more than 1,100 new jobs created by the region’s poultry industry during the past several years would have ever occurred.