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Waynesville’s wish of tourist railway derailed out of the gate

Since the advent of the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, tourists flocking to Bryson City and Dillsboro to ride the scenic passenger train have been the envy of neighboring communities.


They have long been wondering how they could get a piece of the action and lure the tourist rail attraction to expand its train service.

“That was sort of the big picture thing” when the railroad started 20 years ago, said Waynesville Mayor Gavin Brown. But, “It got no traction.”

The privately owned Great Smoky Mountains Railroad is based in Bryson City with runs as far south as the Nantahala Gorge and as far north as Dillsboro. But Waynesville Mayor Gavin Brown dreams about the train transporting tourists on to Waynesville, or even as far east as Asheville.

“I don’t know that it can be done, but I am doing some investigation on my own,” Brown said.

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There is no doubt that it would be a huge draw for tourists, he said.

“It would be a benefit to the community from my perspective at least,” Brown said. “How many kids today can say they have ridden a railroad?” 

The biggest hurdle is that the only railroad tracks venturing north from Dillsboro to Waynesville belong to Norfolk Southern and are used daily for freight. Norfolk Southern transports freight to and from a cardboard factory in Sylva and an Epsom salt factory in Waynesville, as well as carrying woodchips to the papermill in Canton.

The mayor said he is trying to gather major players who might work with him to convince Norfolk Southern to share the tracks. Among those Brown has spoken with is Michell Hicks, principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, who in August expressed a similar desire — to see the tourist train expand into Cherokee, though there are currently no railroad tracks running into the reservation.

As for Waynesville’s wish, without an agreement with Norfolk Southern, the idea will be nothing but a pipedream.

“A lot of hurdles would have to be overcome to make that happen,” said Robin Chapman, a spokesman for Norfolk Southern.

The two forces could only reach a mutual use agreement if the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad trips do not interfere with Norfolk Southern’s schedule. Trains carrying freight run along the lines between Sylva and Waynesville about six times a day, he said.

“Coordination of the freight and passenger trains would be a challenge,” Chapman said.

The spur line from Canton to Waynesville to Sylva doesn’t have many, if any, pull offs allowing two trains to pass.

The parties involved would also have to identify any possible liabilities of operating a passenger train on the rail line as well as come to an agreement on how much the tourism train operation would pay to essentially rent use of the tracks.

“That would be a rather complex process,” Chapman said. But, “We are willing to listen to requests from localities.”

Another question, however, is whether the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad would want to expand trips into Waynesville or whether that would be a viable business operation for the company.

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