The three Delaware Coast Line Railroad tanker cars stranded for nearly a year at the SPI Pharma factory near Cape Henlopen State Park will not go back the way they came, over the Lewes-Rehoboth Canal bridge.
The empty railcars were parked near the front of the facility when state transportation officials deemed the bridge too unstable to cross.
The 120,000-pound tanker cars will instead be removed by a crane, loaded onto trailers and trucked to an area near the Delaware River and Bay Authority maintenance facility in Lewes. There they will be reassembled on the tracks, according to railroad general manager Dan Herholdt.
A railroad engine will pull the tanker cars 18 miles to Georgetown, the base of operations for the railroad. The entire trip will be paid for with state dollars, because the state owns the railroad.
Originally, Herholdt said, the plan was to close the hand-cranked swing bridge, align the tracks and pull each unloaded tanker car across the canal, one at a time, with a tow cable.
“But it's not safe. The bridge is worse now,” he said. The cars could be moved early this fall, Herholdt said.
The 100-year-old bridge was closed by state transportation officials in September 2016, when railroad workers discovered a misalignment of the tracks. An inspection revealed that the bridge had settled about 7 inches and pieces of support timbers had split.
SPI Pharma was the lone company served by the railroad’s Lewes to Georgetown line. It is now transporting its product by truck. State transportation officials determined it was not economically feasible to spend millions of dollars on bridge repairs for one railroad customer.
Eventually, the bridge will be removed, Herholdt said.
The section of railroad that runs from Lewes to Cool Spring has also been also decommissioned. The tracks will be removed from Savannah Road past Route 9 in Cool Spring to make way for future work on the Lewes-to-Georgetown Trail.
Herholdt said when the tanker cars are gone, it will mark the end of more than 140 years of railroad history in Lewes. But it may not be the last time a Delaware Coast Line Railroad train makes the trip from Georgetown to Lewes.
Herholdt – who took over the railroad when his father, Michael, passed away – said he's planning a farewell tour in honor of his father sometime this fall.
Herholdt says he is sad to see the railroad decommissioned. “But I can't argue the point that money will be saved,” he said. “We will continue to keep our little railroad busy.”
Although most of the Georgetown-to-Lewes rail line will not be used, Delaware Coast Line still operates some sections of track for other clients including Mountaire and three gas companies. Herholdt said he is negotiating with future clients including a company that wants to use the railroad to transport lumber.
Herholdt said he's hopeful Delaware and Lewes officials will consider leaving the tracks intact within city limits and establishing an outdoor museum with displays of old railroad equipment highlighting railroad history.
“I'm just putting that idea out there,” he said.