Restored Locomotives Draw Fans, Rave Reviews

Train traveling from Candor to Pinehurst and Aberdeen on Sunday, May 17th. Ted Fitzgerald/The Pilot

Crazy for This Train

Train buffs and railroad insiders from around the country gathered in Moore County recently for the inaugural run of Aberdeen Carolina & Western Railway’s (ACWR) restored 70-year old locomotives. 

The eye-catching sunflower yellow and magenta paint scheme stands apart from the dark green hues of the company’s regular fleet of freight engines. Instead it was designed sxpecifically to compliment ACWR’s special train of vintage passenger cars.

“We wanted it to pop,” said ACWR president Jennifer White.

Headquartered in Candor, ACWR is an economic lifeline for the region as the largest privately-owned Class III short line railroad in North Carolina. Its 150 miles of track crisscross six counties and multiple connections to CSX and Norfolk Southern lines. The railway serves approximately 18 industries, transporting materials such as plastics, dimensional lumber, wood chips, aggregate, brick, butane, ethanol and propane.

Locally in Moore County, the railroad is known for its 100 unit trains carrying corn and grain from Aberdeen to the two major poultry feed producing plants located just over the Montgomery County line along N.C. 211. 

But history comes alive when ACWR rolls out its fleet of magenta-colored vintage train cars. Several years back the company operated a dinner train service but today the refurbished showpieces are used primarily for economic development efforts by the railroad.

White said the newly restored F-unit locomotives unveiled Sunday, May 16, will be used exclusively to power these special trains.

Led by No. 271, the historic locomotive was built by the Electro-Motive Division of General Motors Corp. in 1952, according to a brief history published by the Train News Wire. It began its service with the Baltimore & Ohio Rail and was used in commuter service before it was acquired by Norfolk Southern. There it was coupled with a B-unit locomotive to power  office car trains across N/S’s 19,500-mile, 22-state system, connecting New York, Chicago, and Atlanta, while also making regularly scheduled trips to the Masters Tournament at the Augusta National Golf Club and to the Kentucky Derby in Louisville.

Now retired, Rob Menzies founded the Aberdeen Carolina & Western Railway in 1987, starting with one locomotive, three customers and 30 miles of track mostly through Moore County. Two years later he signed a long-term lease for another 119 miles of line stretching from Charlotte to Gulf, northwest of Sanford.

Most short lines invest a minimum of 25 percent of their annual revenues in rehabilitation and maintenance, far more than almost any other industry.

In track alone, Menzies spent over $30 million between 2000 and 2010 to improve its rail corridor, converting the 70-pound rail into a 141-pound continuous-weld rail and upgrading bridges to create the kind of infrastructure more typically found on a Class 1 railroad. It is because of these upgrades that ACWR can handle the long unit trains.

However, Menzies’ real passion was in restoring the vintage fleet of train cars including the museum-quality 1917 Roamer, the Pinehurst with its 24-seat dining room, and the Mission Santa Ynez known to be the last surviving solarium car that once ran the tracks between California and Chicago. His newest passenger car is the Art Deco-style Menzies Vista.

The newly unveiled F-units were purchased by ACWR in 2019 and have been officially rebranded as ACWR 271 F7A and ACWR 276 F7B. 

“This is a great story for North Carolina. Robert took what was a derelict railroad to a world class operation to serve the state,” said longtime friend Ross Rowland, chairman of the American Freedom Train Foundation. “Everything he does is done with class, style and perfection.”

Rowland and his wife, Karen, of Sackets Harbor, N.Y., were among approximately 120 or so railroad dignitaries and special guests invited by ACWR for the unveiling and inaugural run of the locomotives this past Sunday.

Terry Feichtenbiner of Grand River Railway describes the shortline railroad community as a “fraternity” where everyone knows and supports each other. The anchor customer of his Ohio-based freight service is Morton Salt.

“It really is an amazing fraternity. You’ll find people here who spend their entire lifetime in the railroad business,” he said.

Dave Hoffman of Black River Falls, W.I., was also on board with other members of the American Association of Private Railroad Car Owners (AAPRCO). He and his wife operate Northern Sky Rail, a luxury rail car charter service.

“We want to come here, to bring our train cars here,” Hoffman said, noting the association holds twice-a-year conventions to destinations across the country. The new and vintage private cars are typically pulled behind Amtrak along main lines before connecting to short line rails.

ACWR is finalizing plans to construct a private siding adjacent to Pinehurst Resort’s campus for private car use and also recently upgraded its tracks in downtown Aberdeen where it connects directly with Amtrak service.

Roger Schmorr, AAPRCO’s special trains trainmaster, said the membership is “chomping at the bit” to bring a convention trip to Pinehurst. He also envisions the opportunity to establish a golf-destination train that can bring visitors from a major hub, like Washington, D.C. to Pinehurst, directly by rail. “Trains offer an entirely different experience. You sit back and relax and enjoy the pristine scenery.”

Contact Laura Douglass at (910) 693-2474 or email laura@thepilot.com