The Navy has signed an agreement allowing a private entrepreneur to operate an excursion train that will carry tourists from Indian Head to White Plains and back, officials announced this week.

The line will operate on 15 miles of Navy-owned railroad running across Charles County from the front gate of the Indian Head Division of the Naval Surface Warfare Center to White Plains, south of Waldorf.

The Navy selected Northern Central Railways, a company that runs a dinner train based in New Freedom, Pa., to operate the line. The operators expect to start excursion train rides at Indian Head in the fall, with dinner trains operating by next spring, officials said.

"The final hurdle has been cleared for the Navy to award a contract to a dinner operator, which is exciting news for Indian Head," said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), who has pushed the project for more than a year.

"We are thrilled," said Capt. John Walsh, the commander of Indian Head.

The railroad passes through some pristine wetlands areas along Mattawoman Creek in Charles County. "We evaluated the area and decided it was the perfect place," said Donna Kress, general manager for the project.

Local officials predicted that the train would be a boon for tourism and the local economy. "This is great news for both the Navy and the community," Hoyer said.

The company plans some improvements to the track before the excursions begin. "It's in reasonable shape, but we're going to have to do some work," Kress said.

Indian Head Navy officials said the upgrade will allow the base to make better use of the rail line, which was built during World War I and used to transport coal, heavy equipment, supplies and other materials to Indian Head. The track has been out of service for about 10 years, officials said.

"As a manager of resources, this out-lease puts me in the position to be able to use the railroad to transport coal and other materials and equipment by rail, which could easily prove to be the most cost-effective means," Walsh said.

The project stems from a partnership the Town of Indian Head and the Navy established several years ago to look at mutually beneficial projects. Leasing the railroad line to a private train company was at the top of the list, officials said.

"This [lease] is the culmination of years of efforts," said Lou Scalfari, chairman of the partnership. "It will benefit both the local community and the Navy. We set this goal and were able to achieve it little by little, one step at a time with the help of a lot of people. There are a lot of people in this country interested in trains and railroads. When I think about all those people coming to Indian Head -- this is exciting."

"We will be planning a major celebration in the fall with Northern Central Railways to commence its Indian Head train operations," said Mary Lacey, civilian director of the Indian Head Division of the Naval Surface Warfare Center, "and look forward to everyone getting together to take one heck of a jubilant train ride."