I recently took a junker of a $900 minivan on a road trip through Tennessee. While beating on the van off-road I came upon a mysterious train abandoned in the woods. The battered and vandalized locomotive and its cars have a sad story to tell.
Located about an hour northwest of Knoxville and parked in a railroad siding is a weathered green 1951 Alco RS-3 locomotive. Coupled to it is an even older combine car (a train car that combines freight and passengers) and a commuter car. Under the plant growth and faded paint you can just barely make out the name of a railroad: New River.
Once I got home I had to find out why the train was there.
The train is idled on the Oneida line, a 41-mile spur of Norfolk Southern’s Cincinnati-Southern line weaving through some of the best scenery in Tennessee. As reported by the Independent Herald, the Oneida line started back in 1889 for the purposes of shuttling coal and lumber around the region. The line starts in Oneida and snakes to Fork Mountain, Tennessee where it terminates near a former mining camp.
Tennessee Railroad used the line for decades hauling timber and coal through the Cumberland Mountains before it was purchased by Southern Railway Company in 1973. Operations continued until 2004, when Southern Railway Company (now Norfolk Southern) abandoned the line. It was revived in 2006 when National Coal Company bought it for $2 million to move coal from its mining operations.
But in 2008, the rail line would find use for more than just shuffling coal around. As reported by Knox News, lifelong friends Scotty Phillips and Jimmy Byrge had the idea to bring tourism to the struggling area using the rails. The pair launched the New River Scenic Railway with a 1951 Alco RS-3 diesel locomotive from Arizona, a commuter car from Canada and a combine car from New York.
The idea was to give passengers a tour through the history of Tennessee’s railroads with the backdrop of Tennessee’s mountains and forests.
According to the Reading Railroad Heritage Museum, the locomotive first served on the Reading Railroad out of Pennsylvania before getting shipped off to Arizona. This beast is powered by an Alco 244 1,600 HP V12 turbodiesel prime mover.
These locomotives are known as road switchers; locomotives designed for moving cars around railroad yards and also traveling at higher speeds.
To add to the vintage theme of the railroad, the locomotive got painted in classic Southern Railway colors with the cars done up in Norfolk & Western colors.
Phillips and Byrge reported taking some 3,000 people on their 62-mile journey, departing from an abandoned elementary school converted into a train depot.
But the railroad didn’t last long as the Great Recession rolled in and once again put the future of the line in peril. National Coal liquidated its assets, selling the 41 miles of track to the R.J. Corman Railroad Group of Kentucky for $3 million. Sadly, R.J. Corman wasn’t interested in allowing the New River Scenic Railway to use its tracks, and in late 2009 the train was parked in a siding.
Phillips and Byrge tried to work with R.J. Corman to allow their railway to run, but their efforts failed. Then in 2013, even R.J. Corman stopped using the line.
The Alco RS-3 and its cars remained on the siding and in decent shape until somewhat recently. Thieves and vandals found the train and its condition is quickly deteriorating. Windows are completely missing and the locomotive is stripped of everything that could be easily stolen. I mean, people even stole the thing’s speedometer!
Phillips noted to the Courier News that it would cost lots of money to rebuild the train and at least $600,000 to repair the line itself, money he doesn’t have.
While I was there, two people were there trying to steal a turbocharger and a railroad spike, but only made it out with an airbox. It looks like something you’d find in a nuclear exclusion zone, but it’s really not abandoned at all.
R.J. Corman filed a notice of abandonment with the U.S. Surface Transportation Board in 2020. Locals, the North East Tennessee Rail Authority and the Arkansas-Oklahoma Railroad tried to save the line by appealing with the STB. This bought the line time, but the STB eventually denied appeals to the abandonment.
Not much else has been reported about the train since, with a recent footnote saying that the train’s owners will remove it from its current place for “off-rail tourism” use. It’s unclear what that means, but it’s an unfortunate fate for a vintage locomotive.
Update 17:09 p.m. EDT: I have been informed that the owner of the train is no longer Phillips. Meanwhile, the effort to reverse the STB’s abandonment decision is still ongoing, with the Save The Tennessee Railway group trying to save this piece of history.
Update September 30, 2021: I also want to make it clear that the individuals trying to make off with a turbocharger was not from the group of side-by-sides. That group took pictures, chatted with each other and departed without parts. There were many others coming and going while we were there in a variety of other vehicles.