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Trail Planned for Former PRR Atglen & Susquehanna Branch

[This article was published in the March 2005 issue of the Bull Sheet]

In a process that has taken over 15 years to date, the Surface Transportation Board has granted Norfolk Southern the right to abandon the 33.9-mile former Pennsylvania Railroad's Atglen & Susquehanna Branch between Parkesburg (MP 0.0) and Manor Township (MP 33.9) in Pennsylvania. This opens at least the opportunity for all or part of the right of way to be converted into a recreational use trail. In a decision dated January 19, the STB concluded that a final memorandum of agreement had been executed and filed with the Advisory Council for Historic Preservation, thus allowing the railroad to "fully abandon the line."

The line - a portion of what was traditionally known as the "Low Grade" line - passes through the townships of West Sadsbury, Sadsbury, Bart, Eden, Providence, Martic and Conestoga, and the borough of Quarryville.

The branch was originally petitioned for abandonment in 1989 by Conrail, then owner of the line, through the Interstate Commerce Commission, predecessor to the STB. Approval was granted the following year for abandonment of the entire branch, except for the bridges. By excluding the 83 bridges - the only properties on the line that had then been identified as "historic" - the ICC required the railroad to retain interest pending completion of a historic review process.

Later, in 1996, Conrail sold a portion of the line, between MP 1.5 and MP 4.0.

While procedural requirements of the National Historic Preservation Act continued, a petition was filed with the Surface Transportation Board by the Friends of the Atglen-Susquehanna Trail to reopen the proceeding and broaden the historic review process to include the entire line, not just the bridges. In 1997, the petition was denied, and a further petition for reconsideration was similarly denied two years later. The Friends of the Atglen-Susquehanna Trail then took the matter to court, and in 2001 a U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that the STB had "failed to comply fully" with the National Historic Preservation Act, and ordered the board to broaden the historic review process.

This paved the way for further analysis and a determination that the entire branch - and not just the bridges - was "historic." Public meetings were held, and the final memorandum of agreement was presented in April 2004 and signed in July by the Advisory Council for Historic Preservation, the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Officer, STB's Section of Environmental Analysis, Norfolk Southern, and the townships of Martic, Providence and Sadsbury.

In its January 19 decision, the STB ruled that its involvement in the manner has been concluded - provided Norfolk Southern notifies the STB within 60 days that it intends to consummate the abandonment - as the property will no longer be part of the national rail transportation system. Further negotiations and/or litigation - outside of the realm of the STB - over transferring the property to new owners will now be free to commence. Lancaster County, through which most of the line is situated, has already filed a "declaration of taking" in its Common Pleas Court to exercise eminent domain to acquire 930.2 acres of the right of way for trail purposes. In a reply filed on January 7, 2005, the Friends of the Atglen-Susquehanna Trail, which had taken the matter to court in the first place, stated that it supports Lancaster County's preservation efforts.

According to its website, the Atglen-Susquehanna Trail is a rails-to-trails conversion project that proposes to make use of the corridor stretching about 23 miles across the southern end of the county, approximately from Atglen to Safe Harbor. The organization conceived the idea to transform the line into a hiking and biking trail in the early 1990s. Ever since, it has been the subject of ongoing controversy and debate among recreation and preservation groups, municipal officials, business owners, civic leaders and residents. The State Department of Conservation and Natural Resources has offered to provide the county with funding for the project.

The Atglen & Susquehanna Branch was constructed in the early 1900s to funnel an increasing amount of freight traffic from the passenger line serving Lancaster and Harrisburg. Actually one of about five different branches under the single moniker of Low Grade, the Atglen & Susquehanna was electrified in 1936, and was a busy, double-track line connecting Parkesburg with the (still active) Columbia and Port Deposit line at Creswell, about a mile geographically northwest of Safe Harbor. By way of a bridge nine miles northwest of Creswell spanning the Susquehanna River between Shocks Mills and Wago Junction, the trains could reach Enola Yard across the river from Harrisburg. The Atglen & Susquehanna became redundant in the late 1980s, and in 1989 (using the name "Enola Branch") it was petitioned for abandonment. Tracks were removed beginning in 1990.

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UPDATE, May 16, 2008 . . .

[From Intelligencer Journal website report by P.J. Reilly]

Enola line sale nears

LANCASTER, Pa. - It's been 19 years since Conrail first moved to abandon the train tracks that stretch across southern Lancaster County. And ever since then, the owner of the 23-mile Enola Low-Grade Line - which is now Norfolk Southern - has been trying to unload it. It now appears ownership of the 850-acre property finally will be transferred out of the hands of the railroad company this summer.

Within the past week, six Lancaster County townships - Bart, Conestoga, Eden, Martic, Providence and Sadsbury - and West Sadsbury Township in Chester County received from Norfolk Southern sales agreements regarding the Enola property. The supervisors in each township have 30 days to sign and return the agreements to Norfolk Southern. The price each township must pay for the railroad land is $1. Supervisors in Eden and Conestoga signed their agreements this week.

In Sadsbury, supervisors voted Monday night to sign their agreement as soon as their solicitor gets answers to a few minor questions. Providence supervisors in April voted to sign their agreement as soon as it arrived and their solicitor had reviewed it. Solicitor Mel Newcomer said he received the agreement Thursday. Martic supervisors have scheduled a special meeting for 6:30 p.m. Monday in the township building to discuss their agreement. Supervisors in Bart and West Sadsbury have yet to address their agreements.

Once the railroad accepts all the agreements, Norfolk Southern officials have 60 days to sign over the land to the respective townships, the agreements state. Also, the railroad will turn over $1.4 million to be divided by the townships for bridge maintenance and/or demolition, as ordered by the state Public Utilities Commission in 1997.

Already, Norfolk Southern is preparing to close the book on this long, complicated story.

"We're talking about doing some type of event to mark the end of this whole process at one of the townships," said Norfolk Southern spokesman Rudy Husband. "After everything we've been through, it would seem odd to just let it pass without any acknowledgment."

Between 1903 and 1906, Pennsylvania Railroad built what was called the Atglen-Susquehanna line from Creswell Station in Manor Township, down the Susquehanna River to Safe Harbor and across Solanco to Atglen, Chester County. More than 2,000 men, many of them Italian, Turkish and Syrian immigrants, were employed at the peak of construction. Dozens died while blasting through the river hills and the rolling terrain of Solanco. The construction required more earth moving than any other project of its era except the Panama Canal. The goal was to maintain a grade of just 1 percent from the Susquehanna River all the way to Atglen. The last train ran on the line in 1988 and Conrail asked permission from the federal government a year later to abandon it. That's when the battle over the land began.

A private rail-trail group succeeded in lining up more than $1-million for the property's conversion for hiking, but the effort fell apart amid rancorous opposition by residents and officials in most of the affected townships. The county also briefly considered taking on the rail-trail project but retreated in the face of Solanco opposition.

The townships through which the line runs offered to take the land in a deal that ultimately was approved by the PUC in 1997. A variety of delays - including the acquisition of Conrail by Norfolk Southern in 1999 - held up the deal for years.

In 2004, Lancaster County Commissioners abruptly announced their intent to seize the line through eminent domain to establish a rail-trail. The Solanco townships quickly challenged the takeover in court and won. The county's land grab was overturned.

Supervisors in some of the townships over the years have said they are willing to discuss establishing a rail-trail on the line. But they've consistently said they want ownership of the property first.

According to Lancaster County property records and the 1997 PUC order, the land and money each of the six townships here stands to receive from Norfolk Southern are:

It could not be determined Thursday [May 15] how many acres West Sadsbury is expected to acquire. The PUC order calls for the township to receive $30,000.

[from Intelligencer Journal website report by P.J. Reilly, 5-16-08]

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FURTHER UPDATE, July 29, 2008 . . .

[From Patriot News report]

Enola Branch Property Trasferred to Six Pennsylvania Townships

One of the state's longest-running rail-trail disputes might be nearing an end. Norfolk Southern transferred ownership of 23 miles of abandoned rail line known as the Enola Branch to six townships in southern Lancaster County July 28 along with money to demolish rail bridges. A volunteer group, Friends of the Atglen-Susquehanna Trail, was poised in 1998 to convert the line into a rail trail, but the townships objected. James Cowley, executive director of the Lancaster County Planning Commission, said he hasn't given up hope for a rail trail, but acknowledged that opposition still exists. [From Patriot News report, 7-29-08]