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David Ludlow, executive director of the Wilmington & Western Railroad

Dec 31, 2014 10:12AM ● Published by Kerigan Butt

(Editor's note: This article first appeared in our Winter 2014 edition.)

By John Chambless

Staff Writer

David Ludlow has been the executive director of the Wilmington & Western Railroad since 1993, and a volunteer since 1990. He's a licensed locomotive engineer and a certified track inspector. He oversees and develops all railroad operations, schedules, capital improvements and restoration projects. He's also responsible for volunteer recruiting, training and staffing.

In the afermath of Hurricane Floyd, he managed a $3 million flood-related reconstruction project. His hobbies include collecting railroad artifacts. He holds a BS degree in agricultural engineering from the University of Delaware.


Q.: Can you remember what first sparked your interest in trains?

A.: I guess the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree. My grandfathers worked for the Illinois Central and the Louisville & Nashville Railroads. Interest in railroading? I’d say it is something that you are born with.


Did you grow up in the Delaware Valley area, and how did you discover the Wilmington & Western?

I grew up in North Wilmington, in Brandywine Hundred. If my memory serves me correctly, I first visited the Wilmington & Western in the early 1970s. I think I took my high-school sweetheart out for a picnic lunch at Mount Cuba Picnic Grove.


Did you ever drive locomotives as a profession?  

Previously, I was not actively involved (or employed for that matter) in the railroad industry. I came to the Wilmington & Western as a volunteer, wanting to preserve a piece of our local history. I started out on the all-volunteer track gang, changing crossties by hand. They told me “this is how you do it.” It was absurd, and I still have the back pain to prove it. We have machines doing that work now.


How has the W&WRR grown since you started volunteering there in 1990?

Oh wow! Where do I start? There have been many significant accomplishments. A new Greenbank Station was built, a “backshop” maintenance facility was built, a steam locomotive was rebuilt, a new office and “world headquarters” was constructed, much of the track has been rehabilitated, all of the railroad bridges have been rebuilt to modern standards, and we are expecting our early generation 1940 diesel locomotive No. 8408 to return to service in early 2015 after a three-year rebuild. Things are very different from my early years.


As the man responsible for volunteer recruiting, would you say that volunteers are what the railroad needs the most?

Yes. Volunteers are the energy that fuels the Wilmington & Western. We couldn’t even come close to doing what we do without a strong volunteer force. We have about 65 to 85 volunteers at any one time. We see some of them weekly, some of them monthly, and some maybe quarterly, but all of them are contributing to the overall prosperity of the WWRR.


Is the fall/winter a busy season for you? Do you run full Santa trains?

When we turn the corner towards the fall, sometime after Labor Day, the activity really picks up. The volume of traffic ramps up quickly. Charters, private events and Autumn Leaf Excursions really keep us busy. Our Santa Claus Express trains begin right after Thanksgiving. At first they may not sell out, but as we get closer to Christmas, advance reservations are highly recommended.


There really is no "off season," right? Do you do track maintenance during the winter months?

There is no “off season” for the administrative staff. Even after the trains shut down for the winter, we are busy planning budgets, operating schedules, preparing for our annual art festival in February and  holding training classes for volunteer staff promotions. We don’t perform much track work during the winter months as the grounds are frozen and it just isn’t practical with volunteers


After Hurricane Floyd, did you think that the railroad was finished? How did you secure funding for the reconstruction?

Hurricane Floyd really spun our heads around. It was such a shock to see so many years of hard work washed away in a matter of hours. No one could believe what had happened. It looked like operations were over, but in my heart I knew that many people were behind us to rebuild. The Wilmington & Western Railroad is a Delaware icon, and I was certain that no one wanted to see us fold under. The state, the county and our representatives in Washington rallied to save us. Our rebuilding funding came from FEMA disaster relief funds.


Do you sometimes think that all the men who have worked along the railroad line over the past decades would approve of how the team is running the W&WRR?

I don’t know. In every volunteer organization, there is always someone or some group who thinks, “You should do this” or “We’d be better off if you’d listened to me.” The truth is, the organization today is strong. We have no financial debts. We have a great safety record, our ridership is up, our income is steady, and we are completing many of the restoration projects we set forth in our strategic plans. I think, overall, the team has proven themselves.


What would you like to tell people who have never visited the railroad? What makes it special?

Come and see us. Ride with us and see what we have to offer. Your train ride will be staffed by loyal, knowledgeable and courteous volunteers who are dedicated to their commitment. It will be evident by their actions that they are passionate about what they are doing and they will want you to share in their enthusiasm. The history, the landscape, the beauty of the Red Clay Valley, our preserved equipment from the industrial revolution, allows our riders the opportunity to experience a simpler time in American life. That’s what makes it special


Do you sometimes ride the W&WRR just for fun?

Yes I do. I still like it very much. I don’t think I’ll ever lose that feeling.


To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, e-mail jchambles@chestercounty.com.


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