The sights and sounds of what Aiken was founded on have almost become nonexistent over the years.
Rarely can you hear the roar of an engine barreling through the middle of town or smell the coal burning.
But beginning next month, that is about to change thanks to a lease agreement in which the newly founded Aiken Rail Company will take over all of the railways in Aiken County from Norfolk Southern.
Steven Hawkins, president and owner of the ARC and parent company Western Carolina Railway Service Corporation, has been hard at work since agreeing to the deal in October, preparing to run the train service five days a week.
“The basis for us founding our company was to preserve rail service in areas where it was facing reduction or elimination,” Hawkins said. “This was clearly a candidate that met that criteria and it's in my home state of South Carolina, so I'd rather see the service preserved than eliminated.
“I want to stabilize it for now and grow it for the future. I want to preserve the service because, if you remove the railroads, you remove any opportunity for providing that service in the future.”
This is Hawkins' second foray in buying lightly used railways in small communities. Five years ago, he purchased the railroad in Greenville and grew business from 600 cars to more than 7,200 this year.
On the Aiken tracks, residents will see only a handful of cars pass by every day in the early afternoon.
“It wasn't financial; it was just loving what I do. I believe there's enough potential here that this company, as a stand-alone company, can make money,” Hawkins said. “I'd like to think I can get an electrical burn. I don't think I can get a lightning strike again. I definitely believe there is room to grow.”
Norfolk Southern agreed to lease the tracks to WCRS due to keeping the lines locally operated, a premise that they have seen work in the past.
“ARC had a competitive proposal and a clear commitment to reinvest in the line to improve service and develop new business,” NS spokesman Robin Chapman said. “We found that short lines were often in a better position to provide better service to local customers.”
Aiken was founded as a town surrounded by rail service, building as more and more people came through the state on what was once the longest stretch of rail in the country.
Today, that line, running from north Aiken to the center of town and east to west from Warrenville to Oakwood, totals just more than 18 miles. On each end of the line is one of the four main businesses that use the track.
“Each of those lines basically terminates approximate to the last business that is active on the line,” Hawkins said. “So everything beyond that has been pulled up. Hopefully we can stop that.”
The existing customers are AGY, WR Grace, Active Minerals and Carolina Eastern. But Hawkins thinks that more companies could thrive with the railroad, possibly even moving to town to utilize it.
“The key to that has been reliable, safe service, reinvestment in the company and working to attract new business,” Hawkins said of his company's success. “Only God knows what the future holds, but I could definitely see a manufacturing or production company that would require rail service move to the area.”
Hawkins has said he was happy to lease the railroad in Aiken but not just for financial reasons, he wants to preserve the once-bustling lines as much as he can. It is a passion that he has combined with business sense to live a lifelong dream.
“I've always loved trains,” Hawkins said. “I've always loved the railroad. As far back as I have a memory I loved trains. And that passion has just never left me. How many people get to do what they love as a career? I have the best of both worlds, I get to own a company and do things the way I want to do them.”