Hugh Reynolds: All aboard?

A CMRR train.

A CMRR train.

Last week, Ulster County’s executive branch launched another blitz on the Catskill Mountain Railroad, apparently aimed at convincing the legislative branch of the merits of the county’s increasingly expensive legal battle to break its lease with the CMRR. Sources from inside the rare closed-door session where lawmakers were briefed indicated the effort might have been counterproductive.

Since legislators are not allowed to discuss issues presented in executive session — usually limited by law to personnel, contracts and litigation — names have been omitted to protect those who still believe the public has a right to know what its elected leaders are doing.

The only hint of something afoot was a cryptic sentence at the end of the ninth page of the legislature’s June agenda, to wit: “Executive session with county attorney [Bea Havranek] to discuss litigation.”


A year ago, the county formally notified CMRR of alleged failure to meet the terms of its 1991 lease and moved for summary judgment to have the lease voided. The 25-year lease expires in May 2016. The county seeks to create a walking trail along the old Ulster & Delaware Railroad’s 38-mile right of way from Kingston to Highmount.

CMRR, which has repaired about five miles of track for its tourist trains in two sections, one between Kingston and Hurley and the other between Mount Tremper and Phoenicia, sued the county to maintain its lease. It is one of the ironies in this increasingly bitter dispute that the county, the instigating litigant, is legally speaking the defendant (victim?)  in the case, something the county attorney pointed out to legislators in closed-door session. A state Supreme Court judge, after rejecting the county’s petition last summer, will hear the case in November.

Hugh Reynolds. (Photo: Dan Barton)

Hugh Reynolds. (Photo: Dan Barton)

As it turned out, Havranek’s one-sided presentation of legal issues was only the icing on a carefully baked cake. Preceding the county attorney, in public session and unannounced, was a half-hour slide show of railbed and bridge degradation by the executive branch’s rail-trail project manager Chris White. In fairness to White, assigned by County Executive Mike Hein to pursue the county’s interests, his slide show was taken from a Boston-based engineering consultant’s report presented to legislators a week before their regular session.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, more so a series of detailed, up-close slides showing deteriorating track running over washed-out roadbeds, rotting ties, litter, overgrown foliage, plugged culverts and, in particular, scary close-up views of the recently repaired bridge near Route 209 in Hurley. And if the narrator didn’t mention that much of this damage was caused by once-in-a-century storms in 2011, oh, well.

Some slack-jawed legislators were obviously dismayed. Also left unsaid was  that no train has run on those sections of track in almost 40 years and repairs have been carried out in only a few places. Further left unsaid was that Hein has been withholding federal funding to repair storm-damaged tracks near Phoenicia for almost three years. The purpose of this presentation was not to afford legislators a balanced, objective overview, but, like prosecuting and defending attorneys do, to argue one side of the case.

Lots of money for lawyers

Legislators, acting as a kind of grand jury, had questions of their own.

The county, in doggedly pursuing this legal action, has spent upwards of $75,000, perhaps $100,000, as has the railroad. County legal expenses, paid by the public to an Albany law firm, have been cleverly kept from public view by limiting individual payments to less than $50,000. Anything over that charter-designated threshold has to go through the legislature.

The sense of the legislature, from what I could gather, was that the county has thrown enough money at this problem, considering that the lease expires anyway in 22 months.

Perhaps inadvertently, White’s graphic presentation raised another far more serious issue with legislators.

By now, everyone, including railroaders, understands that a small group of volunteers will never be able to raise the tens of millions of dollars it would take to restore some 33 miles of railroad track. From White’s presentation, some drew the conclusion that it could also take millions to create a safe, accessible walking trail along the right-of-way. And who’s going to pay for that? The New York City Department of Environmental Protection has pledged $2.5 million to create a walking trail on the section of tracks in city-owned land along the Ashokan, an amount that might cover engineering and design fees.

The railroaders, after going toe to toe with Mighty Mike for more than a year, were unusually reticent on this report. For the record, they’ll say only that they’re working to address some of its findings. Apparently, lawyers have interceded.

Tracksters, on the defensive since Hein sought to void their lease last year, could take heart that the legislature is at least raising questions as to how the executive has proceeded. It may be that Ulster County government is not a one-man show after all.

More light could be shed from both sides when the newly appointed all-legislature railroad advisory committee meets in its first official session on Wednesday, July 2 at 5 p.m.

Here come the judges

Say what you will about sales-tax crisis Kevin Cahill, the boy does have clout in Albany. At the close of this year’s state legislative session, Cahill announced the creation of not one but two local judgeships.

Establishing a long-sought third county Family Court judgeship has been in the hopper for at least a couple of decades, even as the problems of overcrowding and burgeoning caseloads grew worse in this court closest to the people. That this new-found plum will create a feeding frenzy at the local bar is a foregone conclusion.

There are of course pros and cons. Among judicial posts, Family Court is the pits — heartaches by the dozen, troubles by the score, and few easy or simple solutions. It’s a place where human misery washes to shore.

The extremely truncated campaign season will be a challenge. Legislation creating the new judgeships (Dutchess gets one, too) provides for an extra week (to about mid-July) for candidates to collect the necessary signatures on nominating petitions. A minimum of 5 percent of those who voted for gubernatorial candidates in the last election is required. Assuming there’s a contest, this being the only chance downtrodden Republicans will have to elect a new judge in the next decade, viable candidates will need to raise something well over $150,000, and in a hurry.

There are 36 comments

  1. CP

    Thank you, Mr. Reynolds, for shedding some light on this situation, especially the one-sided presentation by the pro-trail contingent that completely overlooks the benefits of a working and viable railroad. If the county (i.e., Mr. Hein) spent on the railroad what they’re spending on lawyers (and allowed the railroad to do the same), the CMRR could be running from Kingston up to the reservoir by now – or at least a lot farther than they are. If the county was using photos of the open line in their presentation, not the segments that haven’t seen a train in 40 years, a little more truth might be getting out there. (Please note: CMRR volunteers have given – and keep giving – the entire line “a haircut” to keep overgrowth at bay, even in sections where they’re not running.) When Kingston and the county see the kind of positive response – both in numbers of people and in tourism dollars – events like the Polar Express will bring in, perhaps they will understand the positive benefits the CMRR can bring to the region and turn from undermining to supporting it.

  2. tom healy

    Sad that the county executive gets an hour and a half to bash the railroad. Yet the railroad gets only 3 minutes per month to defend itself at a county ledgislative meeting. Hey by the way, did chris white and Ms Havranek get paid overtime for the dog and pony show? add that to the taxpayers bill if they did

  3. Tom Healy

    Re: The vegetation. A picture might not tell the actual story. It was nice of Mr White to take pictures of Brush growth along the tracks at near peak at the end of may. Most local rights of way cutting by state and local governments doesn’t start until after the growing season ends. And that is in June.

  4. Gregg Swanzey

    Let’s put politics aside. We have a choice. We can keep on losing ground to nature on this corridor to the point where no one is able to use it for any purpose or we can go another way. It was not just several “once in a century storms” that did this. The objective engineering study documents an accumulation of neglect to the point where it is unsafe to run a locomotive over bridge spans or most of the rail bed pulling cars with people in them. Top priority is we need to protect and maintain this right of way. The economics clearly favor a rail trail, hands down. We are missing opportunities until the rail trail network is in place in Ulster County, especially in Kingston since several rail trails converge in the City. And, who knows, at least this way, say twenty or thirty years from now, if the pendulum swings the other way and there is once again a viable business plan and a desire for reinstituting rail service at least we will have an intact corridor to work with. We need to put it to good use now or we will lose it. Mike Hein has it right on this one.

    1. Tom Healy

      “let’s put politics aside” Versus “Mike Hein has it right on this one.” Ok Mr Swanzey, Which is it? With Mike Hein, you don’t have a choice. With the county ledgislature you might.

    2. Tom healy

      “The objective engineering study documents an accumulation of neglect to the point where it is unsafe to run a locomotive over bridge spans or most of the rail bed pulling cars with people in them.” Chris white and a track inspector (Not a professional enggineer) is far from Objective. How much did this cost the taxpayers? another $20,000 or $30,000 thousand? Did Mr White and the track inspector test the bridge with a live Load ( Full length train) with a Professional engineer present? as I would assume the railroad would have done. Did they get more than one Professional Enginneer to inspect the bridge and approve it before running over it? as I would assume the railroad would have done. Did the railroad work with a PE while making repairs to the bridge? as I would assume they would have done. It seems the last resort when runnng out of bullets to shoot at the railroad is scare tactics. Just More fodder for the lawyers I guess

      1. CP

        Mr. Healy, you are correct. Mr. Swanzey, it is a RAILROAD corridor, but it could be made to accommodate a trail WITH rail (although there are sufficient other trails in the area). Let me add that with ultra-rare exceptions, once railroad tracks are taken up, they are never laid down again. The Catskill Mountain Railroad is a unique resource. It is well within the realm of rebuilding, but it needs the funds already allotted to it and it needs the time to be spent working on it, not being tied up in court. As I have said before, had the county given the money it wasted on lawyers and released the previously granted funds to the railroad, the volunteer staff and crew that is keeping this resource alive and growing despite this ridiculous opposition could be successfully operating a lot more of the railroad than it always is now.

        1. Gregg Swanzey

          Mr. CP, We all would prefer to enable both and that would be possible if it were a double track corridor. But we must choose. The U&D Corridor is single track with narrow cuts and berms and it travels through wetlands. Quite frankly, I think you know that. As you say, the CMRR needs funds, significant public funding. That kind of funding is not there. However, it is there for rail trails. The County has done what needs to be done to do the right thing for the County residents. We wish the CMRR could focus on the Boiceville to Phoenicia leg where it has been most successful. If they are unwilling to find a win-win solution than so be it. One thing you should know is that the “opposition” is significant, not ridiculous.

          1. Tom healy

            ” We are missing opportunities until the rail trail network is in place in Ulster County” At what point does the use of the term “monopoly” come into play in defining trail advocates?

          2. Gregg Swanzey

            Monopoly is a word that does not apply in any case. Viable is a word that is relevant. No one has seen a business plan that works for the CMRR except maybe from Boiceville to Phoenicia. There is not such a plan that is viable for the entire 38 miles nor does it apply to Kingston.

          3. CP

            There are several points which must be made:

            First, rail and trail can coexist with minimal overlapping. Studies exist that show that.

            Second, rail is unique in the area; there are many trails, not all that are heavily used. In addition, unlike a trail-only scenario, CMRR is a taxpaying corporation, not a public expense.

            Third, funds have already been appropriated but not released, so the money is already there – just sequestered. And the money will be well used: for example, CMRR’s volunteer labor rebuilt bridge C9 for $80,000 (plus labor) when the original price tag for its restoration was quoted as $800,000!

            Fourth, yes, the corridor is in rough shape in places, but except for the major rebuilding of the Boiceville Trestle (for which the money is available – see above) it is doable. Of course, the county’s paid consultant would choose to put this in the worse light possible.

            Finally, a “long-term business plan” would incorporate a single-seat run from Kingston to Phoenicia, which would be both a trip unto itself as well as an alternative transportation route. And related to that, there is potential freight business at the Kingston end of the CMRR; the connection to the national rail network is easily restorable.

            Mr. Swanzey, I appreciate your good works with the Clearwater, Mohonk and other projects, but I also realize that as Chairman of the Rail Trail Committee, your work is deemed successful only if the railroad is converted into a trail. I submit that there is a better alternative(with or without an adjacent trail), and that is maintaining and supporting the CMRR, which is working with renewed energy to create a regional attraction that will bring money into the area with its unique operation and dedicated volunteers. This can be done much more effectively with the county’s support instead of its obstruction.

          4. Tom Healy

            “We wish the CMRR could focus on the Boiceville to Phoenicia leg where it has been most successful.”
            Polar express, Thomas the tank, Peanuts Holloween train, poentially a diner train on a daily basis up the the reservoir and a lot more coming from what I hear. All great Family themed events. To me it sounds like a good business plan with 2 very different business models. I think Success, could very well change from the west end to Kingston rather quickly. Add in a trail network with Kingston Plaza as a hub and uptown Kingston will finally get it’s due. time will tell. By the way, Who is “WE” That you refer to?

      2. Gregg Swanzey

        Mr. Healy, Have you walked the corridor? It is in rough shape. The consultant confirms this. So, when it comes to safety of the people that ride the CMRR, what is your point?

        1. Tom Healy

          in 25+ years the railroad has been running, I have never heard of anyone ever getting hurt other than maybe a bee sting while riding on the CMRR. they have an excellent safety record. Scare tactics seems to be the last step left by a group who wants to see the railroad put out of business. Sad

          1. tom Healy

            ……Scare tactics seems to be the last step left by a group who wants to see the railroad put out of business—–>So that their own goals may be achieved

    3. Tom Healy

      In My opinion, The top priority is getting everyone (County, Trails, and Railroad groups) working toghether. Only then, will the Right of way be maintained and properly protected.

      1. Gregg Swanzey

        It is a single track. Either the CMRR figures out a way to do it, and it has had nearly 30 years to show progress, or it is to go another way. We are suggesting there is another way.

    4. Tom Healy

      Greg, In my opinion, Build Both rail and trail. Build a Victorian style station at westbrook lane. Make it a Rail AND Trail hub. One that Would tie in all the trails that come to Kingston. Add enough bathrooms, bike racks information kiosks etc that would draw in the trail crowd. Maybe even a meeting room upstatairs for trail meetings. For the railroad, it’s a focal point for The polar express, Thomas the tank, A Dinner train to the reservoire (year round)Etc. Make it big enough to accomodate some office space that could be rented out to pay for both the trail and RR use. Let this be a project seed that would see all sides working together. The end result woud be that Ulster residents, it’s visitors and especailly uptown Kingston would all benefit from this.

      1. CP

        Nice idea, Mr. Healy. I agree that such a multi-use station would be a positive and useful attraction, but I suggest we support getting what’s in place working first – allowing trains to go west from Kingston over the rebuilt and previously thoroughly-inspected C9 bridge to Kenco (and then onward to the reservoir), and rebuilding the Sandy washouts so that Phoenicia-to-Cold Spring service can be fully restored on the west end. This could actually be done this year with the county’s support instead of its obstruction.

        1. tom healy

          That’s being worked on now, What is more important is that the witch hunt against the Railroad that looks to put it out of business be stopped. both sides I’m sure, have spent enough on lawyers that would have seen a station/trail hub built already.

  5. Tom Healy

    Re: another photo shown at the dog and pony show as shown on the county live stream. It’s Sad how Mr White failed to mention that those tires pictured belong to someone encroaching on the county right of way. A county problem in my opinion. It’s also Sad that he failed to mention that the RR complained to the county years ago and asked for help in stopping of those illegal tires from being dumped there. but then that would have contributed to a ballanced show as Hugh stated. Then again, Maybe that issue could have been brought up at a railroad advisory board and corrected. OH wait, never mind….. I forgot, No advisory board either. 🙁

  6. tom healy

    Regardless of whether one favors rail or trail, the fact is the railroad is now being subjected to nothing short of a witch hunt. This in order to break it’s leaseby the county with the county before 2016. No business,volunteer organization, tourist operation even trail groups, should ever be subjected to what the Railroad is being subjected to now by the county executives office. It’s no wonder why Ulster can’t attract any business.

  7. John Garesche

    Wow – what a completely one-sided pro-rail presentation, Hugh. That damage (and I have walked every inch from Boiceville through Kingston is NOT all due to one storm. It is due to over thirty years of neglect. CMRR has done their best to restore the rail – but they have proven it is NOT viable. We cannot have both a rail and a trail – the corridor is to narrow. The only significant money and momentum is for a trail. That will provide the best economic bang for the buck.

    Let’s build a trail!

    1. CP

      John, I discovered on the net the following comment in an article you wrote about the canopy on Wall Street:

      “I wish those who are so keen on this project might have had the same enthusiasm for saving what was truly historic – the old Trolley Barn on Broadway and W. Chester Street. Their lack of vision now provides residents with another drug store chain. The third within a one mile radius.”

      I submit that if you substitute Catskill Mountain Railroad for trolley barn and trail for drug store chain, the theme of your argument is the same for supporting the CMRR. Most of the damage you see on the CMRR (save, of course, the Boiceville Trestle*) is repairable with minimal funds, the CMRR’s volunteer labor and the right equipment – either purchased or borrowed. what is needed is understanding of what the CMRR can be and support to get it there.

      (*Again, money to replace the Boiceville Trestle has been appropriated but not released.)

  8. Gregg Swanzey

    Mr CP, people are asking for some way for rail and trail to coexist. The problem is that is essentially impossible considering the narrow corridor we have to work with. They can’t be side by side in most areas. This means a segmented approach is a place to explore. That is why the Phoenicia to Boiceville segment seems to be the most lucrative and viable for CMRR and has been frequently suggested. Even so, the CMRR refuses to even discuss where rail might come up to enable a trail to exist and seems to want to maintain full control over the entire 38 miles. On top of that you suggest freight might move through Midtown, past Kingston Plaza and up the corridor. You know we have roughly 50 trains a day moving freight through as it is on the CSX line. We’d rather remove some barriers and connect the City with linear parks. Is there such a demand for freight that we should consider that? What about those of us who live in Kingston? It is about quality of life and a Liveable City here that will make it safer, attract new residents and new businesses of all kinds.

  9. Gregg Swanzey

    Mr. CP, What people are asking for is an alternative that allows both to coexist. The problem is that the corridor is not wide enough over most of the length for side by side to be possible. What has been suggested is a segmented approach with CMRR focusing its effort where it is most viable in the Boiceville to Phoenicia segment. Never in the conversation has CMRR allowed for any option where rail would be removed. The CMRR controls 38 miles of corridor but operates on less than 5 miles of it and they would like to maintain that control. Also of concern is your suggestion that freight move off the CSX line, through Midtown, past Kingston Plaza and up the corridor. That corridor was abandoned for freight service years ago for good reason. Even if there were a market for that service, it would mean even more freight moving through Kingston and we already have 50 trains a day on the CSX line. As a City resident and one who is working on economic development for the City, we need to remove barriers, connect the City together with linear parks, thus increasing safety and attracting residents and businesses alike. This is key to Midtown and city-wide revitalizaton. Are you and the CMRR able to discuss any alternatives where the rail is removed to enable a trail/linear park? If not, then coexistance is unlikely and that would mean we would have to chose.

    1. CP

      Mr. Swanzey, you wrote:

      “What has been suggested is a segmented approach with CMRR focusing its effort where it is most viable in the Boiceville to Phoenicia segment. Never in the conversation has CMRR allowed for any option where rail would be removed. The CMRR controls 38 miles of corridor but operates on less than 5 miles of it and they would like to maintain that control.”

      Yes, they would – and ideally they would like to run trains on the entire 38 miles, or at least the 27 or so to Phoenicia. You can not run trains without track; thus, there logically would be no offer to relinquish any track. As I have said before, there are many trails but there is only one railroad. If “coexistence is unlikely and…we would have to choose,” the logical and economic choice is the railroad, run as a business without the cost to taxpayers of maintaining a trail. Let me once again recognize your professional association with rail trails, and suggest that your CMRR interest is probably considered successful only if you get the rails lifted and convert the line into a trail.

      You add:

      “Also of concern is your suggestion that freight move off the CSX line, through Midtown, past Kingston Plaza and up the corridor. That corridor was abandoned for freight service years ago for good reason. Even if there were a market for that service, it would mean even more freight moving through Kingston and we already have 50 trains a day on the CSX line.”

      First, a fact check: although the junction switch of CMRR and CSX is currently removed, the entire Ulster & Delaware line is NOT abandoned, simply “out of service” on the sections where trains are not running. Next, freight service would most likely be a switching operation in city areas where industry was, is or could be situated. Another fact: every freight car can carry the equivalent cargo of four trailer-loads. That’s four trucks off the city streets and no additional trains on the CSX line, one of the vital lifelines of commerce in the northeast. If you are interested in economic development, removing trucks from the city streets and putting freight on the rails would be a logical development.

      It is late 20th century thinking to try to kill railroading; rail use in the US is up, both freight and passenger, especially as fuel costs rise. It is also true that well-run tourist railroads (such as CMRR) are a great attraction and business developer. The reality is that Kingston has two rail corridors. Both were there before we were born. One is being under-utilized. Rail has the “double life” of being both a charming part of the past and a dynamic part of the future. From what I can tell, the CMRR would like to embrace both, which can only benefit the county, city and, yes, the railroad.

  10. hokeystuff

    So, if we get beyond the nostalgia and the defensiveness there are basic facts that have to be taken in to consideration. First there are three options: Rail only, rail with trail, and trail only. For each option, there is the 1)initial construction cost, 2)ongoing maintenance cost 3) source(s) of funding 4)projected direct revenue to the operators 5) indirect revenue to the local economy
    No one seems interested in discussing this situation in these terms. I wonder why that is?

    1. CP

      Thanks, hokeystuff, for adding another voice to the discussion. I am but an interested observer and can’t speak to hard facts beyond a few snippets that have come my way. As it is now run, a dedicated core of CMRR volunteers and some additional less-frequent ones maintain the railroad and are doing additional maintenance in unopened sections where most people don’t see it. I do know there was an estimate for building the C9 (Esopus Creek, Kingston) bridge of $800,000, but CMRR volunteers brought it in at 10% of that price. Although the bridge passed an engineering inspection and was in use for most of last season, someone required an additional inspection and things have been held up temporarily.

      Actual maintenance costs are out of my knowledge realm, but I do know that special events, which could become annual, are planned for the Kingston end of the line; they will benefit both the railroad and the city. Again, I don’t have figures, so I can’t quote them.

      Regarding your last question, people closer to the hard numbers may not be revealing them because of the ongoing legal – and political – situations, but there are numerous instances of successful tourist/scenic rail operations helping to drive their area’s economies. Locally, the Kingston trolley museum appears to be doing well, as does the Delaware & Ulster Rail Ride on the far western section of the U&D.

      1. hokeystuff

        Unfortunately, none of that addresses the bigger picture that decisions need to be based on.

  11. CP

    A clarification to my note above: That estimate was for re-decking and re-laying the rails of the C9 bridge, not for a total re-build.

  12. hokeystuff

    And once again, the conversation stops when the question is asked about basic business factors to try to assess the situation. Unfortunately for CMRR, the onus is on them to present a viable business plan in order to convince the county to extend their lease beyond 2016, assuming the county doesn’t prevail in court and ends their lease before that.

    1. CP

      I can not speak authoritatively enough to continue the conversation with specifics; as I have said before, I am a very interested observer, not an official. I can safely say that special events and the extension of the available track will increase the railroad’s success. Check their website: tickets for The Polar Express are already on sale, and there are more big events to come. Again, details will have to come from someone in the railroad’s executive structure, which I am not. In the meanwhile, keep checking

        1. hokeystuff

          CP, I think you’ll have some challenges selling tickets at $27 and $34 a pop. That’s $61 for one adult to take one child on a 2 mile train ride that offers hot cocoa and a sing along.

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