2017-04-26 / Front Page

Catskill Mtn. Railroad plans for summer are all derailed

No tourist trains or people-powered cars for Phoenicia
By Susan Kurp

Rail excursions from Phoenicia to Boiceville are officially “paused” according to Chris White, deputy director of the Ulster County planning department, leaving the county without a major tourist attraction as it enters the upcoming summer season and up to 22 locals without anticipated jobs.

The Catskill Mountain Railroad will not be operating tourist trains in or out of Phoenicia and the Rail Explorers Corporation, scheduled to replace them, will not be able to offer pedal-powered bikes that ride on railroad tracks. The future of the Empire State Railway Museum is in question with no activity to attract visitors to the historic depot.

Ernie Hunt, president of the Catskill Mountain Railroad, ousted from the tracks by Ulster County, said his organization will continue to run trains from the Westbrook Plaza in Kingston each Saturday and some Sundays through the summer. But the rail bike operation that was scheduled to take over for them in the western part of the county is on hold indefinitely.

Though the reason for the current delay is the state of the tracks, residents of the Cold Brook Road area, where the ride will terminate, have raised serious questions about the plans authorized for the excursion terminus.

Permit was issued

The county issued the fiveyear permit to Rail Explorers in October 2016 for approximately 6.2 miles from Route 28A and Cold Brook Road in Boiceville in the Town of Olive, crossing Route 28 in Mount Tremper, to the east side of Bridge Street in Phoenicia, Town of Shandaken.

According to Rail Explorers, the rail bikes they operate have steel wheels, hydraulic disc brakes and pedals for each seat, require pedaling. The steel wheels on steel rails make the experience very different from riding a regular bicycle. Rail Explorer said its rail bikes were the first to be used commercially in the United States. Passengers sit side by side in a slightly reclined position, with pedals far enough in front of them that they can extend their legs.

The company expects 20,000 people each season who will want to pedal the 6.2 miles from Phoenicia to Cold Brook then get on a bus and ride back to Phoenicia. But residents of that area learned in March that rail bikes would travel down the Ulster & Delaware tracks alongside 36 homes on a narrow, winding road, a plan that looks dangerous if not unworkable. Cold Brook Road residents say their research shows Rail Explorers came into conflict with homeowners over their past two years of operation in the Adirondacks due to the noise of the bikes and issues with the large quantity of tourists passing by their properties. Rail Explorers moved out of the Adirondacks at the end of last year’s season.

Community concerns

In early March, a meeting at the Olive Library quickly grew tense as Olive residents presented their concerns to White and Rail Explorers CEO Mary Joy Lu and Managing Director Alex Catchpoole. Lu and Catchpoole defended their operation as positive and uplifting for riders, while White insisted the bikes would be more environmentally friendly and economically beneficial than the excursion trains of Catskill Mountain Railroad (CMRR). “Rail Explorers offered what we thought was a better value in terms of how many people they would employ and visitors they would bring to area,” said White at the March 8 meeting. “We like that they’re not operating heavy diesel trains.”

Lu said that she and Catchpoole, Explorers in 2015 with six rail bikes, quickly doubled the number to 12, then added another 10. “We have four- and twoseaters,” she said. “Over two seasons, we had close to 40,000 riders from July to October.” The company expects to employ about 22 local people with wages starting at $15 per hour. The positions of general manager and operations manager will be higher-paid, full-time jobs. However, without the ability to start up at all, employment figures are in question

Washout problems

In the meantime, washed out tracks in sections of the right of way spell doom for the entire operation. Bids for repair of three washouts on the Ulster County-owned railroad tracks near Boiceville came in much higher than expected, said White. “Our engineer is evaluating the bids and the breakdown. Administrators and the legislature will decide whether to move forward. There’s no guarantee that we’ll be progressing this project this year.”

The track damage includes problems along the disputed Cold Brook Road section in the Town of Olive. If the tracks are not repaired, the company will be forced to alter its route, as it has already been considering due to residents’ concerns.

County engineers had estimated a repair job of $182,000 for the largest of the three sections of track, damaged by Hurricane Irene in 2011. Three bids came in three to four times higher for that section alone, White said. Estimates for all three projects ranged from $973,189 to $1,247,000.

“Over next couple weeks we will have to make decisions on whether and how to progress,” said White. “We’re still extrapolating information from the bids, trying to figure out what drove the costs so high. It is a remote site, so getting materials in and out is a substantial part of the cost. The administration needs to talk to the leadership of the legislature and see what they are comfortable with. We’ll also need something in writing from FEMA saying they would accept a change in scope, since we need erosion and sediment control, which were not in the original scope.”

Meanwhile, White has asked the engineer to look at what can be done to stabilize the tracks and consider other alternatives. Rebidding the tracks will probably be done, but the delay may interfere with the April through September window to work around the creek in the watershed.

Return to top

Click here for digital edition
2017-04-26 digital edition