A power outage this morning did not stop Pottstown Downtown Improvement District Authority members from receiving a key presentation on the Colebrookdale Railroad's Secret Valley tourist line. Nathaniel Guest gave the presentation to the board in a darkened meeting room at PDIDA's Hanover Street headquarters.
Guest outlined steps the railroad would need to take to become a viable economic engine for the communities it would connect -- Boyertown and Pottstown -- as well as a future vision for the project. The 8.6-mile line, now used for freight, runs through sheltered river valleys surrounding Manatawny and Ironstone creeks, which provide spectacular scenery for visitors to view. Guest said old-fashioned bridges, complete with wooden trestles, and a "beautiful" stone arch bridge "creates spaces for people" to discover.
"Though the railroad is in a populated area, when on that line, you can't tell it," Guest said. Guest also cited a wealth of local legends and history as key factors for the Secret Valley Line's draw.
"This is one of the few places in the country where you can clearly trace the iron industry from its 18th century development to its 19th century technical progress to the 20th century," Guest said.
The Pottstown end of the line is located near Pottsgrove Manor and could be a crucial kick starter for the Western Gateway Project, Guest said. Similar projects in Boyertown would also receive a potential shot in the arm. A very preliminary proposed concept would have the Secret Valley Line running on weekends from May to December. The two-hour round trip would be staffed by paid and volunteer employees. Colebrookdale predicts ridership anywhere from 10,000 to 30,000 people per season.
A key concern would be to make sure the downtown, which lays away from the train's projected landing, is heavily promoted and involved. Solutions could be as simple as advertising and running specials for passengers, or as elaborate as trolley or bus service from the station to downtown. Finding restaurants that can handle a train load of people will be another economic hurdle to clear. Guest's vision for the train includes a dining car - a potentially lucrative service since railroads have special exemptions which makes it easier for them to acquire a liquor license.
Guest outlined steps necessary to make the Secret Valley Line a reality: an implementation, planning and economic development study and smaller capacity, shorter ride "initial excursions" to both test the product and generate excitement. Guest made it clear that the implementation plan is critical if the railroad wants a lasting, sustainable economic impact. With $20,000 already acquired for the plan, Guest said a matching contribution -- or commitment to a matching contribution -- would be needed by March, 2012. Stone Consulting, a firm that specializes in railroads, would be tapped to do the report. According to Guest, the company makes correct prognostications "nine out of 10 times."
Preliminary excursions may begin by 2013. The train runs would require two to three passenger cars, boarding, bathroom and parking facilities. While the trips would not have all the amenities and offerings of a full scale railroad, they would need to run smoothly and provide an attractive experience.
"We need to make a good first impression no matter what we do," Guest said.
Guest presented a handful of ideas for how the line could be used when fully in place. The plans include a holiday Polar Express, the arrival of Santa by train to either town, a Toys for Tots train, an "Old Timey Baseball" train and a Halloween Terror Train.
"This line is exceedingly spooky at night," Guest said.
PDIDA chairwoman Sheila Dugan said she supports the Secret Valley Line proposal.
"If we as PDIDA … can get the merchants excited about this … that's going to be big," Dugan said.