"We're the Virginia Central users Association, but we feel more like the Virginia Central Used Association," said Lin Harrell. "We were used like pawns."
Harrell runs Piedmont Fertilizer, one of the dozen or so Fredericksburg business that are supposed to be served by the Virginia Central Railway.
It's been almost three weeks since a train moved down the Virginia Central's two-mile mainline and the people trying to get the trains running again say it will be late this week before they succeed.
The Virginia Central and its customers are the victims of the collapse of Railvest, a Georgetown company organized to sell boxcars to wealthy investors looking for a tax shelter and lease the cars to railroads. Railvest bought the Virginia Central because the line's name on the cars enabled Railvest's car owners to charge about 66 percent more for the use of their boxcars than could a nonrailroad company.
The $1,000 to $3,000 a month operating deficit of the Virginia Central was supposed to be eliminated by more efficient management or absorbed by the profitable car leasing business.
After Railvest's boxcar venture collapsed earlier this year, its president Joseph Keating, and general manager, Lawrence Cahill, managed to keep the short line running for several months.
By the time the trains stopped running, the Internal Revenue Service had slaped a tax lein on the Virginia Central and the RF&P had sued for $88,000 in freight charges the Virginia Central allegedly had collected from shippers but failed to pass on to the other roads.
In a meeting with Interstate Commerce Commission officials and others trying to get rail service restored, Keating said the Virginia Central was about $160,000 in the hole, said Walter Sheffield, the Fredericksburg city attorney.
Those debts are a major stumbling block to finding someone else to take over the Virginia Central and serve its customers. The City of Fredericksburg, which had owned and subsidized the railroad for two years, sold the Virginia Central to Railvest two years ago for $10 cash and the promise the road would be kept running. The contract was supposed to assure that the city would get the Virginia Central back if Railvest couldn't run it, but that provision is in doubt, since repossessing the railroad apparently also would make the city liable for its debts.
The RF&P can't take it over for the same reason, Sheffield explained, and the RF&P engines are too heavy for the deteriorated tracks of the Virginia Central.
Sheffield, Keating and RF&P representatives met with ICC officials Thursday to seek federal funds and to discuss an ICC directive to the RF&P to provide temporary service. The money is still in doubt, but RF&P says it may be able to use a its smallest switch engine on the Virginia Central rails.
The long-term solution, ironically, probably will come from the Virginia Highway Department. It plans a new road cutting across the Virginia Central right of way, requiring replacement of a shakey, old trestle and rebuilding of the trackst. That could make it possible for RF&P engines to serve the Virginia Central's customers.