The Potomac Eagle scenic railroad runs on the rails and state officials are adamant the tourist attraction be protected in any agreement. PHOTO: Potomac Eagle Facebook

ROMNEY, W.Va. — A national short line railroad company is in contract talks with the state to enter a long term lease agreement with for 51 miles of railroad in the South Branch Valley.

OmniTrax is looking for the opportunity to enter into the agreement to operate the line running in the area of Romney to Moorefield. Already OmniTrax operates the Winchester and Western Railroad in the eastern panhandle which among other businesses services the Clorox and Proctor and Gamble operations in Martinsburg. Those are part of 25 railroads in 15 states and Canada operated by OmniTrax. The company combines rail service with real estate investment to attract industry to a region.

“We’re part of those communities everywhere we go. It’s a big part of our model and part of our philosophy. Safety is number one with our railroad and our company. We were best in safety nationwide out of our industry,” said Stacey Posey, Vice-President of Operations for OmniTrax.

Posey was on hand to talk about the company’s proposal to operate the lines in the Potomac Highlands during a recent public discussion before the Hampshire County Commission. Posey noted there were two key elements the state demanded as discussion got underway earlier this year. One was to protect the Potomac Eagle scenic train which runs on the same lines. The other paramount concern for the state was to take care of their employees who have been working for years with the State Rail Authority.

“The state has made it clear that our intent here is to grow the business and to grow the passenger line,” he explained.

Posey added employees of the rail line who have worked for the state will be more than well compensated if they choose to transition to their company.

But some local residents are clearly skeptical. Speakers raised a number of issues during questions put before Posey at the public hearing.

One was described as a lack of transparency in the negotiations. Steve Conley, General Counsel and Deputy Commissioner for the West Virginia Division of Multimodal Transportation said although no Non-Disclosure Agreements have been signed, releasing the contents of the contract before it is signed would unnecessarily create chaos and confusion.

“It would get scanned and put on the internet and if the first version of the contact went out, we’d still be fighting about the first version. I’m holding version 10 in my hand,” he told those gathered before the Hampshire County Commission. “There’s no nefarious lack of transparency, it just does not elevate the discussion.”

According to Conley, the state’s interests and that of the tax payers are paramount to what they are seeking.

“Protecting the state’s interest, protecting the property, protecting our employees, and protecting the Potomac Eagle. I can tell you this document does all of those things,” he added.

Some members of the public raised concern about the potential for hazardous material to be potentially hauled through the region or stored in the area after OmniTrax took over. It was of particular concern to some who asked about the flood plane of the South Branch of the Potomac. The question came up no fewer than four times and on all four, Posey said there were no plans for such activity.

“Can you assure us that the industry you bring in will not kill our valley in a flood plane?” asked one member of the public.

“We have what’s called a ‘common carrier obligation.’ It doesn’t matter what the product, we have to haul if necessary. I say that because I can’t give guarantees or assurances because of that, but we do not have toxic waste stored or are we hauling it to my knowledge right now,” said Posey.

The agreement, while still being crafted, would call for OmniTrax to share the cost of maintenance and capital improvements on the rails at first. As the company hit certain performance benchmarks, their share of the operating cost would increase until ultimately they would be responsible for 100 percent of maintenance and upgrades on the rail line.

Story by MetroNews Correspondent Chris Lawrence