Colebrookdale rail project overcomes underground obstacle

Photo Courtesy of Colebrookdale Preservation Trust This depot, built in 1887, will be relocated to Memorial Park in Pottstown to serve as the station for the Secret Valley Line historic excursion line on the Colebrookdale Railroad.

The ambitious effort to establish a historic excursion railroad between Boyertown and Pottstown overcame an underground obstacle Tuesday night with a unanimous vote of the Pottstown Borough Authority.

Nathaniel Guest, executive director of the Colebrookdale Railroad Preservation Trust, appeared before the members of the authority board to address a potential problem quite literally at the foundation of one of the plan’s most important elements.

Fifteen feet beneath the place where the group wants to re-assemble an 1887 railroad depot in Memorial Park to serve as the station for the Pottstown end of the Secret Valley Line lies a sewer pipe.

Before the building now located in Birdsboro can be erected, the problem of what to do about the sewer pipe had to be resolved.

In the end, the answer was to do absolutely nothing.

Guest had hoped that a grant for which the railroad group has applied could be used to pay to relocate the pipe, but recently discovered that is not possible. So he came to the authority board with a proposal.

During heavy rains, an access road in the park which leads to the maintenance barn for the Parks and Recreation Department floods, blocking access to vital tools and equipment.

Guest proposed the railroad grant the borough permission to move the access road to an easement along the rail bed, which does not flood.

In exchange, he asked for permission to re-assemble the station at its planned location and participate in paying for a solution should the pipe need to be moved or accessed in the future.

The cost to move the pipe to a different location is estimated at $150,000.

Guest said the railroad project is proceeding on schedule: historic passenger cars are being restored by volunteers, space to work has been established in Boyertown, and he has applied for a grant that, once the 30 percent match is raised, will provide about $950,000 for the Pottstown end of the project.

A combination of Pennsylvania Department of Transportation funding and grant money from the Department of Community and Economic Development and the Commonwealth Finance Agency is not enough to cover the cost of moving the pipe as well as all the other things it has to pay for and, perhaps more importantly, cannot legally be used for that purpose, said Guest.

Built by soldiers returning from the Civil War to supply the area’s thriving metal industry, the nine-mile rail line between the two historic boroughs passes through “some of the most beautiful scenery you will see in this part of the country,” said Guest.

The Colebrookdale Railroad “is an exceedingly historic, exceedingly scenic railroad that most people don’t know anything about,” Guest said with a slight smile.

Once up and running, the rail line is expected to attract 20,000 to 30,000 riders per year, generating an annual economic benefit of $2 million for the two communities, Guest said.

And the Pottstown station “is ground zero” for that benefit.

The station must be located in a place visible from King Street, have room for parking, a bus stop and bike-share bicycles, said Guest, adding that the location in Memorial Park near Trilogy Park BMX track, the splash park, Pottsgrove Manor, the Carousel at Pottstown, Manatawny Green miniature golf and the Schuylkill River Trail will provide the greatest economic benefit to Pottstown.

But “without this station, without a place for people to disembark and see Pottstown, there is no rail line,” Guest said.

Tom Weld, who works for engineering firm BCM Engineers which advises the authority, told the board that the pipe in question is made of PVC plastic and was buried in its current location “in the 1990s.”

Further, he noted, it is buried 15 feet below the ground “and encased in concrete.”

The authority board members were not immediately convinced.

Jeff Chomnuk and H. Michael Benner both worried about setting precedents that others might try to follow in the future.

“We’ve done ‘unusual’ before, and that’s one of the reasons we’re in the shape we’re in,” Chomnuk said.

Authority chairman Tom Carroll argued that the fact the borough owns all the property in the park makes it both unique and easier to set aside as a special exception.

Authority Manager Mark Flanders said the ownership of the property “is an important variable” in terms of doing work there if it becomes necessary.

“I just hate to think what would happen in this town if this rail line doesn’t go through,” Carroll said. “You’ve read what’s in the paper. The Schuylkill River Trail is coming and when it does, we had better be ready for the people that it’s going to bring.”

Board member Aram Ecker said he was sold as soon as he heard the pipe was encased in concrete.

“That concrete is a big deal,” Ecker said.

When Finance Director Janice Lee asked why the board didn’t just move the pipe now, before the station is moved in, Ecker replied, “Why would you take out a bomb shelter? It’s 15 feet in the ground encased in concrete. It’s a fortress.”

Ultimately, all four authority board members — David Renn was absent — agreed and authorized their solicitor, Vincent Pompo, to work out and implement the best legal method for allowing the station to be erected at the Memorial Park location, which will put it in view of drivers on King Street.

Guest said he is optimistic about the financing, word of which will be issued this fall.

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