Steven Hawkins is glad he made an investment in Aiken County.

His business, Aiken Railway Company, is growing, and he believes that local residents appreciate its presence.

“We have been warmly received,” Hawkins said. “It's obvious to me the people of Aiken County understand the role that the railroad plays in their community. It's not just something that's a nuisance when you're blocked (because of a train passing by) at a railroad crossing; it's vital to the economy.”

Founded late in 2012, Aiken Railway is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Western Carolina Railway Service Corporation.

Hawkins, 43, is the president and CEO of Western Carolina Railway, which is based in Taylors in Greenville County. His wife, Cheryl, is Western Carolina Railway's chief financial officer.

“I have been a railroader for 24 years,” Hawkins said. “I left Norfolk Southern in 2003 to form the Western Carolina Railway Service Corporation. Pretty much everybody who knew me thought I had lost my mind because I was giving up the security of a salary, a pension and benefits.”

Hawkins' strategy was to look for small railway lines in North Carolina and South Carolina that no longer were attractive, from a business point of view, for large companies such as Norfolk Southern and CSX to operate. Those small lines are known in the railroad industry as short lines or Class III railroads.

In 2006, Western Carolina Railway launched its first subsidiary, Greenville & Western Railway Company, which has 12.74 miles of rail line in Anderson County.

“In our first full fiscal year in 2007, that railroad moved less than 800 carloads annually,” Hawkins said. “Last year, in 2012, we finished with just a hair under 8,000 carloads.”

The trade journal Railway Age recognized Greenville & Western as the Short Line of the Year in 2010.

Aiken County became the site of Western Carolina Railway's second subsidiary because “I could see all of this industrial potential in the area,” Hawkins said. “I also could see what had been lost over the years, so I thought, 'If it was there before, it can be there again. Someone just has to nurture it.'”

Aiken Railway Company leases 18.9 miles of rail line in Aiken County. The 12.45-mile section between Warrenville and Oakwood once was part of the South Carolina Canal and Rail Road Company's holdings.

That business, chartered in 1827, was the Palmetto State's first railroad. The 6.45-mile section, which runs north of Aiken and dates back to 1879, formerly belonged to the Edgefield, Trenton & Aiken Railroad.

“History wasn't a factor in my decision to acquire the line, but it's definitely interesting to note that we are preserving service on the oldest line in the state,” Hawkins said.

The Aiken Railway Company provides freight rail service to four customers: AGY, Grace Davison, Active Minerals International and Carolina Eastern.

“We bring the raw materials to produce glass fiber to AGY,” Hawkins said. “Carolina Eastern receives fertilizer and agricultural products. Grace Davison and Active Minerals ship outbound clay by rail.”

Aiken Railway receives train cars from and delivers train cars to Norfolk Southern's locomotives in Warrenville.

“There is a lot of potential here,” Hawkins said.

Aiken Railway is on track to haul approximately 1,100 carloads of material in its first year of operation, and Hawkins expects that number to increase in 2014. Two new customers are scheduled to begin using Aiken Railway to ship their products early next year.

“There will be more rail business for us, and there will be potential new jobs for at least one of the customers and possibly one or more new jobs for our company,” Hawkins said.

Aiken Railway began operating with a leased locomotive, but it now has its own engines. Hawkins acquired two EMD GP30 locomotives for the company and refurbished them. One (AIKR 4202) arrived at Aiken Railway's Park Avenue depot in September. The other (AIKR 4201) is scheduled to arrive in December before Christmas.

“We're happy to be in Aiken County,” Hawkins said. “It's a long-term investment.”

Dede Biles is a general assignment reporter for the Aiken Standard and has been with the newspaper since January 2013. A native of Concord, N.C., she graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.