IF YOU GO
What: Secret City Scenic Excursion Train
When: Check out the schedule and fares at www.southernappalachia.railway.museum.
Where: Oak Ridge National Laboratory Heritage Center, Highway 58, south of Oak Ridge. Make reservations online or by calling 865-241-2140.
Fares: Adults, $19; children 3-12, $15.
OAK RIDGE, Tenn. — What the U.S. government was up to at its huge new complex in Oak Ridge during World War II wasn't revealed until after the war ended, when details of the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb, were finally made public.
Even today, as the complex continues to operate as the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, much of the facility is shrouded in secrecy, and there aren't many opportunities for visitors to explore the grounds or hear about its history.
There's one exception, though: the Secret City Scenic Excursion Train, which runs most weekends over 11 miles of track, much of which is within the complex.
Operated by the Southern Appalachia Railway Museum from the small "Wheat" station -- a former guard shack from the complex's early days -- the excursion train offers passengers a rare glimpse inside the once-top-secret facility.
Car hosts such as Bart Jennings give riders in the restored 1940s passenger cars a running commentary that includes some history of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the Manhattan Project, as the train rolls past the now-dismantled former K-25 nuclear weapons plant. At the height of the war, K-25 was the largest building under one roof in America, Jennings tells passengers.
On a recent weekend run, Jennings noted to guests in the rail car that demolition of the milelong, U-shaped K-25 facility was nearly complete, a $1 billion project that began in 2008. The most-hazardous material to be removed from the site wasn't radioactive debris, though, he said -- it was asbestos, which is what the walls of the building were made of.
Jennings, a former University of Tennessee professor who now lives in Illinois, comes back to Oak Ridge about twice a year to serve as a volunteer car host for the museum's Secret City rail excursions. An expert in railroad track design and installation, Jennings was one of the founders of the museum and the group's train rides.
There is no fixed museum, yet. The group, run entirely by volunteers, has a site reserved nearby for a museum building that will come when enough money is raised to build it. For now, "The train is the museum," said Dick Raridon, another museum volunteer, who usually carries the cellphone listed as the number to call to make reservations for the hourlong rides.
The museum maintains the rail line and associated equipment, including an array of diesel locomotives and varying freight, passenger, dining and baggage cars, many of which date to the early to mid-20th century, when rail travel was still king.
Besides the passenger excursions, the museum also runs freight on the line to serve various enterprises in the complex, which is operated by the U.S. Department of Energy.
Train passengers don't have to pass through a guard gate to get to the complex's Heritage Center parking lot, just off Highway 58 south of downtown Oak Ridge, from which the excursions operate. But security is tight enough that the riders must submit to a search of their carry-on items, including purses and camera bags, by DOE security police before they are allowed to board the train. No weapons are allowed on board, and non-U.S. citizens must show their passports and visas to ride.
The rail line into the Oak Ridge complex begins at the top of a hill nearly seven miles away, along Highway 61, where it connects to the Norfolk Southern mainline. Track was laid in 1943, and used early on mostly to bring construction materials to the site, Raridon said. Originally there were 20 miles of track, but much of it has been removed. The museum is preserving the rest.
"The museum was begun about 20 years ago, and we got permission from the DOE to begin operating the excursions in 1998," he said.
The train includes a former Southern Railway baggage car -- built in 1942 and originally used by the Railway Express Agency -- which is now set up as a rolling snack bar and souvenir shop.
Passenger coaches -- with air conditioning and working restrooms -- include Coach 664, the Fort Oglethorpe, built in 1947. It originally made daily runs between Columbus and Atlanta on the Central of Georgia line, which later merged with Southern (now part of Norfolk Southern).
Another is Central of Georgia Coach 663, made in 1947, which for years was used on the regular runs on The City of Miami trains, which ran between Miami and Chicago.
For more information, visit the museum's website, www.southernappalachia.railway.museum.
Contact G. Chambers Williams III at 615-259-8076 or email@example.com.