Chris Reed stepped onto the train observation deck as it passed near the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport, relishing his off-the-beaten-path vantage point.
“Sometimes you almost feel you could reach out and touch the planes,” he said, clutching the railing for support on the bumpy ride back to the Avoca area after delivering three cars of plastic pellets to a plant in the Grimes Industrial Park in Pittston Township.
Reed, operations manager for the Luzerne Susquehanna Railway Co., has traveled the train route under Interstate 81 and over the Pennsylvania Turnpike many times the past six years transporting wood, malt, sweetener, scrap metal and other products from all over the country and Canada to Luzerne County businesses.
The line is part of 55 miles of track, mostly in Luzerne County, owned by the Luzerne County Redevelopment Authority. Reed’s company maintains and operates trains on the line.
Authority Executive Director Andrew Reilly accompanied Reed and Luzerne Susquehanna’s sales and marketing Vice President Jim Raffa on the recent trip as part of his efforts to keep tabs on the operation.
Reilly also wanted Raffa to show him some of the approximately 8.11 miles of unused rail the company has advised scrapping to generate revenue.
The authority can make $286,500 by selling the rail to a Tennessee company. Authority management pursued the proposal about a year ago after some sections of rail were removed by thieves.
Authority members held off on a decision after county Councilman Rick Williams expressed concerns the authority could lose its right-of-way claim on the land if it reverts back to the original property owners after the rail line is removed. The rail route could be of value down the road if passenger rail service linking New York City to Scranton and then Wilkes-Barre ever materialized, he has maintained.
Raffa drove his truck to one of these sections near the PA Child Care juvenile facility in Pittston Township. This line was last used around 1980, and the rails were stamped with installation dates of 1910 and 1921.
Walking past trees and other brush that have cropped up between the rails, Raffa reached a section that suddenly stopped. A three-quarter mile section had been stolen.
A man walking his dog had told rail representatives he saw several men with hard hats in a truck removing the track, Raffa said. The man assumed those men were from the rail company.
The abandoned rail could not be picked up and reused elsewhere because it doesn’t meet current industry standards, Raffa said, noting it could be melted and used for bed frames.
“This is the first time I saw up close the extent of how much was stolen. I believe the rail should be pulled up because we may lose a potential asset to theft if it’s left too long,” Reilly said.
Reilly also concluded there were no current or potential businesses along these routes that may be interested in accessing the line in the future.
The authority is expected to further discuss the matter Tuesday.
Proceeds from a sale would be turned over to the county toward past loans, Reilly said.
The authority owes the county $1.8 million and the county community development business loan fund $1.56 million.
County officials provided this funding in 2001 because the authority was in danger of defaulting on its mortgage and losing ownership of the track. About 25 businesses serviced by the rail line had pushed for county financial assistance at that time, saying $50 million in salaries and thousands of jobs were in jeopardy.
Peering out the train window on the active line, Raffa pointed out improvements his company has made to bring the track to top safety standards required for freight transport.
The train passed remnants of an old dynamite plant and coal operations, telegraph poles and a phone box once used by rail workers to communicate with those down the line.
Raffa said he observes more illegal dumping in the line through Wilkes-Barre, where he’s also spotted homeless camps.
Reed often sees black bears and deer.
He has worked in the railroad industry for 20 years, following in the footsteps of several ancestors, including one who was killed on the job.
While the industry is not what it once was, rail service is still a viable option to reduce truck traffic on highways, he said.
“At one point, this area was crisscrossed with seven or eight different railroads,” he said.
Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.