Investigators are still trying to determine what caused a fire that destroyed four old circus train cars in Nash County last month, but the discovery of two gas cans nearby suggests it could be of arson, according to a representative from the sheriff’s office.
Chief Deputy Brandon Medina told a legislative committee on Thursday that the gas cans were not the kind typically found on a train and were likely brought to the secluded spot in the woods where the North Carolina Department of Transportation was storing the cars.
“It would lead me to believe that someone started this fire,” Medina told members of the Transportation Oversight Joint Legislative Committee.
Medina said no witnesses came forward and no fingerprints were found on the train or the gas cans. He said the investigation was being led by a fire specialist from the State Bureau of Investigation.
The fire damaged four of the nine cars beyond repair. The NCDOT put the remaining five up for auction on the state’s surplus properties website and set an April 18 deadline for bids.
NCDOT bought the cars from Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey when the circus closed in 2017. The department paid $383,000 and planned to strip and refurbish the cars for use on the Piedmont passenger train that connects Raleigh to Charlotte.
The NCDOT then received federal grants that allowed them to order new cars instead. He put the circus train carriages up for auction at the end of 2020, setting minimum bids that would allow him to recoup what he had spent on them, but received no bids.
NCDOT had no room in any of its yards to store railcars, said Jason Orthner, head of NCDOT’s railroad division. So he chose to keep them on a remote section of unused public roads east of Spring Hope, where they’ve been since 2017.
The fire had been burning for a while
An employee at the Bass Farm sausage plant on US 64A reported the fire just before 7 a.m. on March 10, Nick Clerkin of the General Assembly Budget Research Division. Clerkin said he spoke with nearby Momeyer Fire Department Chief Kevin Lee.
“His assessment is that the fire had been burning all night before the call, as some of the cars were already badly damaged by that time,” Clerkin told the committee.
The cars were about a mile from the nearest road, out of reach of firefighters and their equipment. About 20 minutes after the fire was reported, the Nashville Fire Chief contacted Alan Bridgers at Carolina Coastal Railroad to ask if he could get a locomotive to move the burning cars.
Bridgers said that before the engine could reach the cars, the railway workers had to restore some rails that had been removed to separate the active track from the unused section where the circus cars were stored. Once the tracks reconnected, the locomotive pulled the cars to the South Old Franklin Road crossing, where firefighters could extinguish the flames.
Orthner said the wheel assemblies from the burnt out cars are salvageable and can likely be resold. The rest will likely be sold for scrap.
As for the surviving cars, the state set a minimum bid of $6,588 each. Orthner said the market for 58-year-old wagons has largely dried up, although the NCDOT has attracted some interest from private tour train and museum operators.
If the department does not find a buyer by April 18, it will hold a live online auction according to a process set by the General Assembly. in a bill enacted on March 17.
“It’s time to cut our losses”
Some members of the legislative committee wondered if all this effort was worth it. Senator Mike Woodard, a Durham Democrat, noted the cars were probably worth no more than the $33,000 NCDOT is asking for for the five, and half-joked about finishing the job an apparent arsonist had started .
“For me, it’s time to cut our losses and get rid of these things,” Woodard said. “I’ll bring the marshmallows if someone brings the lighter.”
Sen. Michael Lazzara, a Republican from Jacksonville, agreed, saying he thinks the state should scrap the cars “and move on.”
“It’s more of a liability and a danger than an asset,” Lazzara said. “And keeping them there is, I think, not a good decision on our part.”
But Sen. Tom McInnis, a Republican from Richmond County, noted that it was the General Assembly that told the NCDOT how to proceed with selling the surplus equipment, including the circus train cars.
“This agency gave direction to the Railroad Division and DOT in previous legislation on what should be done with this equipment,” McInnis said. “I think Jason is doing it, and I think he needs to keep moving forward and following the rules and the laws that we’ve put on the books on this issue.”