Hugh Reynolds: Train in vain?

The aftermath of a train wreck in France in 1895. (Wikimedia Commons)

The aftermath of a train wreck in France in 1895. (Wikimedia Commons)

Next Tuesday’s monthly Ulster legislature session could be the last roundup for Catskill Mountain Railroad supporters who hope to retain the possibility of a tourist train ride from Kingston to Hurley. On the agenda is a resolution that would permit County Executive Mike Hein’s long-standing plan to rip up the tracks from Midtown Kingston to Hurley in order to create a walking trail that would eventually extend to the Ashokan Reservoir.

Under the Hein proposal, CMRR tracks would be left intact between Mount Tremper and Phoenicia to accommodate a tourist train, though not necessarily under the auspices of CMRR. Hein’s plan calls for operation of that four-mile stretch to be put out to public bid after the railroad’s 25-year lease with the county expires in May 2016. The executive and his staff appear poised to extend every effort to assure that vendor is not CMRR.


For the railroad, Tuesday could be Custer’s Last Stand, with Hein reprising the collective roles of Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and Rain in the Face. (Legend has it that Rain actually killed Custer, among other soldiers, at the battle at Little Big Horn.)

We do not give Hein too much credit here. This was his plan — they call it “vision” on the sixth floor of the county glass house — from the get-go. When the railroad refused to give up its lease with the county, Hein moved to have it voided for failure to meet county standards, which meant returning the road to regular passenger service on the 38 miles of (mostly) abandoned track from Kingston to Highmount. The railroad took the county to court to retain its lease, which is where they are until a judge makes a decision, probably at the end of the year.

Hein claims he can’t remember the name of a single person associated with the railroad, whose leaders and supporters have been pleading their case on almost a monthly basis before the legislature and the public. I won’t say that their pleadings fell on deaf ears, only that the eyes of most legislators looked like Easter hams. If there’s a vocal advocate for the railroad in the legislature, with the possible exception of former chairman Dave Donaldson, that voice has been muted. And Donaldson’s conversion has more to do with his animosity toward Hein — my enemy’s enemy is my friend — than with allegiance to the railroad.

The CMRR has conducted an aggressive public-relations campaign in booking Thomas the Tank Engine next month and the Polar Express in December for its Kingston run. Railroad sources say its website has gotten thousands of hits. But that effort will be a last hurrah. It’s Michael The Train who’s running this show.

There are some loose ends. Hein is requesting some $240,000 in spending authority to conduct a formal engineering and design study for the walking trail from Kingston through the Ashokan, and presumably later down the road from Phoenicia to Highmount. For some cold-footed legislators, that may seem like putting the caboose before the engine. But in the end these are just details. It’s the vision that counts.

The legislature may or may not take up the trail-train resolution on Tuesday. Ulster legislatures are infamous for tabling or avoiding controversial decisions. But if they do vote, I’m guessing it will be all aboard the Mike Hein Special. This guy does not leave the station without all his ducks in place.

Those tracks being ripped up and sold for scrap will mark the end of one era and the start of another.

Here come the judges

While candidates for Ulster County Family Court Judge have been making the rounds to various towns, this Thursday’s candidate session at the Esopus Town Hall will be the first time they’ve appeared together. Democrats Gilda Riccardi of Saugerties, John Beisel of the Town of Ulster and Kevin Bryant of Kingston will face off in a September 9 primary. Republican Keri Savona of Kingston has no opposition, but could probably use the exposure.

On those rare occasions when there are judicial contests, they tend to be rather dull affairs. Though the judicial canon on ethics limits what candidates can say about this or that, sometimes sparks can fly when they get together. I love sparks. Sells newspapers.

If there’s controversy in this race, other than the qualifications and experience of the respective candidates, it’s about “diversity.”

Bryant, 45, is an African-American. If elected he would be the first person of his race to sit on any Ulster County court, including justice of the peace. There are some in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party who see this opportunity as long overdue. That Bryant’s exposure to Family Court — he practices criminal and domestic law for the most part — has been minimal is seen as only incidental to his core group of support.

One need not necessarily have years of experience in a court, as Beisel and Riccardi and to a lesser extent Savona have, to be an effective judge. Some Bryant supporters remind skeptics that former district attorney Mike Kavanagh ascended to state Supreme Court with only law-school memories of civil practice. A quick learner, as is Bryant according to supporters, Kavanagh, with a little help from the bar, got quickly up to speed.


Hugh Reynolds.

Though Riccardi, 60, not to be confused with the family that once operated a popular downtown Kingston restaurant, doesn’t shout it from the rooftops, she too holds the minority card. Her mother emigrated from Puerto Rico at a time when immigrants from that troubled island were hardly welcomed with open arms (see West Side Story).

In any case, the Democratic primary will be decided by who gets their people to the polls. And if experience holds, a 15 percent turnout would produce something like 5,700 voters (among 38,000 registered Democrats) split among three candidates. The magic number therefore could be around 2,000 votes, with the prize being a clear advantage in the November election.

Candidate billboards and lawn signs have sprung up of late, none of which refer to diversity.

Here and there

It seems almost every politician with a hand to shake is jumping on the War on Heroin bandwagon. And probably years too late. Last week, county exec Hein called a press conference to announce distribution of emergency kits to deal with overdoses. A similar pronouncement came a few days later from the governor’s office. The klieg lights had hardly cooled down before legislature Chairman John Parete put out a release reminding readers his office had called for similar action back in March, with a hint that Hein had rained on his parade. And of course U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer is always prepared to put in a bill.

There are 15 comments

  1. CP

    I do not understand Mike Hein’s blind and aggressive hatred of the CMRR (or any rail operation on the UDRR line) nor his rush to kill off an entity that will bring tourism and its money to Kingston (with Thomas and the Polar Express as its focal points). Rail can coexist with a trail, but a railroad is a unique attraction that will bring money to and interest in Kingston and the surrounding area; it should not be sacrificed on the altar of Mr. Hein’s political ego.

    It is important to note that, despite Mr. Reynolds’ premature conclusion, this is not yet a done deal – but it could be on Tuesday night without concerted citizen action. The Ulster County legislators meeting will vote to confirm – or deny – Mr. Hein’s desire to rip up the tracks without compromise, but this resolution can still be tabled or voted down. Our elected representatives need to know that there is strong support among the population (even if not among the politicians) in favor of keeping the railroad, with or without a trail. These legislators need to hear from their constituents who support the railroad and the CMRR now – tonight, this weekend, and all day Monday and Tuesday – by phone, e-mail or if you know them by personal contact.

    Please ask your friends, neighbors and relatives to contact their legislator and support keeping and improving the railroad, and then come early to the legislative session on Tuesday (perhaps 6:30pm or before) so they can sign up for their chance to speak. A strong showing of support for the railroad will be the best bet to get this resolution tabled or voted down. The trail community will also be out there in droves to urge Legislators to approve the resolution; their attacks on the railroad must be answered with fact, tact and passion.

    One more vital point: Ulster County has a Railroad Advisory Committee (UCRRAC) which has yet to reach a consensus on this issue. If it was important enough to reactivate this committee, shouldn’t the legislature wait and consider its advice before a vote is taken? The CMRR made its first public presentation on Rail with Trail before the UCRRAC on August 6th. Have all the legislators seen this presentation? Shouldn’t they do so before they vote so that they understand all side of this issue? What is the rush to pass this legislation?

    Any tourist rail operation in Kingston will be of financial benefit to the city and county, and a full run to the reservoir will create a regional attraction and the best return to the region. But all of this can only happen if Mr. Hein is stopped Tuesday night by the legislature, or at least put “on hold” long enough for the railroad to prove itself. Again, the deadline is Tuesday night.

  2. Voice of Sanity

    Hein is putting his employees and public servants in harms way. Naloxone (Narcan) use is best left to medical professionals. The key is to administer only enough of the drug to bring the person out of their heroin overdose into a “groggy state”. If you administer too much and wake the person up – you are now dealing with a psychotic person who is very angry and often violent that you brought them out of their heroin induced coma “happy place”.

    Let’s see how this works out. I hope Mike Hein’s staff has a thorough training program in place for non medical professionals. He is opening Pandora’s box with Narcan.

  3. Gregg Swanzey

    It isn’t about politics, hatred of the RR, or some personal agenda of the County Executive. For us in Kingston, it is about revitalizing Midtown, taking action on our climate action plan as a Climate Smart Community, connecting the Rondout to Midtown to Uptown, and creating a safe and liveable community. It is about environmental justice and a green city. We have an affordable rail excursion already that gives people access to the banks of the Hudson River and we would like to focus on ways to promote that authentic experience. From Kingston to the Ashokan it should be rail trail all the way. It is time to choose so that we can roll up our sleeves and go to work. There is a great place for rail between Boiceville and Phoenicia. CMRR, show us a plan for that.

  4. Trails to rails

    You rails to trails people make me laugh.
    Nobody, I repeat nobody, is going to hike that trail from Kingston to Ashokan. And how do you greenies propose policing that trail?

    If you have rail with trail at least you have a ride back.

    1. Gregg Swanzey

      I had this idea for a business. We could rent bikes and provide a shuttle up to the top of the Ashokan. Then families, people of all levels of ability, could coast the 18 miles down hill to Kingston for dinner in town. Maybe stay the night at the Garden Plaza. What do you think? It is sort of like tubing the Esopus in reverse and that seems to work. Hey, they could do both! Any day the week. Don’t need to wait on the CMRR.

  5. James Falcsik

    Communities that rely on rail-trails for economic expansion are misguided. As someone who lives near the Great Allegheny Passage, I have heard and read for 27 years of the coming economic boon that will develop from the trail. Why then, are GAP communities in Western PA seeing population declines and trail communities designated as “economically depressed municipalities”? Why do some communities along sections of the Badger Trail in Wisconsin feel their trail conversion was “short-sighted”?

    The reason this happens the way I see it is because mostly local population use a recreational trail for a few hours each week. Local folks will spend their money in the region regardless, so there is no boost from this spending. Of the yearly user count of the Virginia Creeper Trail only 4% seek an overnight stay that contributes to the local economy. The same statistic for the Erie Canal Trail is but 2.5%.

    Using the term “environmental justice” to describe a reason to dismantle a railroad line is just plain foolishness.

    Trail groups in many parts of the country are now targeting railroad short lines, branch lines and local government-owned railroads for rail-trail conversion, empowered by the national Rail Trail Conservancy. Where the RTC used to be instrumental in preserving abandoned rail lines through federal rail-banking statutes, the RTC has experienced “mission creep”. Now the RTC considers “underutilized” lines as good candidates for railroad demolition.

    For railroad corridors like the CMRR and the Remsen-Lake Placid line, where a similar attack on the Adirondack Scenic Railroad is in progress, federal rail-banking status and the federal taxpayer funds for train conversion that follow, should not qualify. Previous community leaders took action to preserve the railroad corridors by the best method of preservation known; keeping it a railroad. Any claim that removing the tracks and rail-banking the corridor for future rail use is disingenuous. Rail-banking requires an agreement in writing that future rail use would take the priority and allow the railroad plant to be re-installed.

    Perhaps the citizens of this area should hold Mr. Hein and other legislators personally accountable for the cost of trail conversion and replacement of the tracks if economic development does not occur. Get it in writing. Wouldn’t that be fair?

    James Falcsik,
    Irwin, PA

    1. Gregg Swanzey

      Mr. Falcsik,
      I would agree if these were rail lines that were operational or at least if there were some semblance of a business model that could maintain the corridor. But, CMRR only uses 4.7 miles out of 38. The railbed is washing out and trees of significant girth are growing up between the ties up the line. In Kingston the corridors have become dumping grounds. We have to change that and the tourist railroad operating on weekends 32 days out of the year is not doing it for us. We have to go another way, especially in Midtown Kingston. Environmental justice is making sure a distressed community is not subjected to barriers, diesel fumes, chain linked fencing, noise, and unpermitted activities like a maintenance yard. It is important for our community and not to be dismissed as foolish. You don’t know Kingston, but I beg your pardon?

      1. James Falcsik

        Mr. Swanzey,

        With all due respect, I live in the area previously known as “The Rust Belt”. Do I know Kingston? No; but do I know what it’s like for tens of thousands of employees to lose their jobs in quick succession because of the collapse of industry? You bet. Is there really much of a difference between your citizens and those in my community that wanted for reasonable employment for years? Some of those “unpermitted activities” you mention are signs of a private business that is trying to improve your community and work to bring visitors as part of tourism economics.

        If your community is economically depressed, why would you limit the possibilities of economic growth for your citizens by removing and segmenting an existing railroad? Do you think this act, and the development of a dirt road path instead will create jobs for the larger region around Kingston? My research indicates otherwise. When you look into metrics that include population and aggregate income growth of trail communities they fall far short of the rosy predictions of economic impact studies. And when one study does not generate the desired result, trail groups purchase another that is more favorable.

        And why do you blame the railroad for your unscrupulous citizens that dump trash on the rail corridor? Are your trash collection rates too high?

        Often the term “environmental justice” is associated with those ideologies that believe manufacturing and commercial development is bad for communities and the environment; how much of this trash is behind the purpose of removing the railroad assets rather than work for a rail-with-trail solution?

        Why does the trail group in your community, and you also, mirror a growing number of hard-line trail advocates that must have all trail and no rail in the name of transportation and these attacks on government-owned rail corridors? That you all use the same script is troubling.

        1. Gregg Swanzey

          I am not hard line trail. I am for best and highest use after weighing alternatives. We have two other rail operations in the city. One is CSX that runs 50 trains through a day. The other is the Trolley Museum of NY that runs on trackage we recently refurbished along the waterfront. We are looking to extend that while looking for ways to run a trail alongside it. There the priority is rail and it works. Good partnership. That is where we want to focus scarce resources.

          On the other hand there are reasons you would have a sense of if you have been following this controversy that suggest the best alternative for the U &D corridor is trail to Boiceville, rail from Boiceville to Phoenicia. The railroad side claims that if the rails come up they won’t go back down and they refuse to entertain any alternatives for rail removal. That is the non-starter since trails built over rails don’t work. Who is hard line?

          1. CP

            You are comparing apples and oranges. The CSX is a through line; its 50 trains a day take exponential multiples of trucks off the road.

            A tourist rail operation is an attraction that brings tourists and their money to an area. This is a local and regional enterprise run by your neighbors and of great potential benefit to your economy. The CMRR expanded its operation into Kingston with the aim of closing the gap in its two ends to become an attraction that would fulfill that role.

            I have indeed been following this controversy; I own CMRR stock because I believe in the potential of the operation to be a success. On the other hand, I believe you want the railroad – under any operator – to become too small to succeed. Everything you have been saying, true or less so, and everything the county government has been doing point to that conclusion.

            As an officer of The Pioneer Valley Railroad in Massachusetts told me a while ago, “If the rails come up, they won’t go back down.” That is absolutely correct. If the U&D rails came up, you and your political pals would never let them be re-laid; you can’t seriously believe anyone thinks they ever would be. Based on research such as that done by Mr. Falcsik, rip them up and all you’ll have is a ditch with an underused trail, a tax and maintenance burden, and a short-term “fix” to what is not now a problem but will be if the legislators go through with this short-sighted measure.

            This is not hard-line, sir. This is bottom-line reality. There are dozens of trails in the Catskills, including rail-trails; there is only one viable tourist rail corridor: the U&D. Add a trail if you want (or don’t, since you claim you’re not hard-line yourself), but maintain and help grow the railroad. The long-term rewards will be much greater.

  6. CP

    Mr. Swanzey, half-truths abound in your response; the public deserves to know the rest of the story:

    – The CMRR would have a lot more track open if its time and funds weren’t being spent defending itself against unwarranted attacks.

    – There would be a longer and more attractive ride in the next two weeks if the recently-rebuilt C9 bridge was reopened instead of being the victim of what looks like it could be a politically-motivated engineering report.

    – There would many additional improvements on the CMRR if the county would release the funding already granted it to continue working to fulfill the terms of its lease. I assume you are aware, but not acknowledging, that accessible areas of the entire right-of-way are frequently cleared of trees and other growth within the financial constraints of the railroad. The Kingston cut is frequently policed, and when citizens of the city continue to dump their trash on the right-of-way, it is picked up by CMRR at its own expense, a cost which will befall the taxpayers if the railroad is removed.

    – Your NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) concern about the Cornell Street Yard has been answered by the railroad: develop a viable terminal and visitor center at the current Westbrook Lane station which would be a tourist attraction unto itself.

    The county has been keeping the rail line from being fully operational, and then accusing the CMRR of not operating it. Is this fair – the kind of “fairness” the trail lobby is claiming in more recent article? The CMRR is not run by the robber barons of old; it is not “the enemy.” It is a local business trying to bring more business and tourist dollars to the area. Why can’t you let it – or help it – succeed?

    1. Gregg Swanzey

      Mr. CP,
      CMRR brought the suit.
      The C9 bridge has problems, thus the closure, based on advise from a reputable engineering firm.
      Public funds you seek to release are constrained by policy. They don’t just send a check.
      Does Kingston Plaza want a rail yard there? Is that permissible?
      Help it succeed? Give us a plan for Boiceville to Phoenicia.

      1. CP

        1. CMRR brought the suit to try to prevent the kind of action being proposed on Tuesday.
        2. As I was told by others, the engineering firm was part of the political agenda and the report was suspected to be part of the plan to rip out the railroad.
        3. I don’t understand “constrained by policy.” Whose? How constrained? How has this not been resolved in the time since the storm?
        4. Again, as I was told by others, there was support to develop a rail terminal and visitors’ center at the far end of Kingston Plaza which might help to resuscitate an under-utilized shopping center.
        5. Boiceville to Phoenicia – with released money to fund filling the Cold Spring washout – would continue until it could be re-linked to the rest of the line. I am not a member of the CMRR’s administration, so I can offer no further detail.

        But let me turn your question around, sir: what will YOU do to help the railroad, a local small business, succeed on its western section WITHOUT destroying its eastern portion?

      2. George Bain

        Mr. CP,

        The railroad brought the suit to protect its leasehold when the county tried to evict the CMRR. The railroad has offered repeatedly to suspend the litigation if the county would stop trying to evict them.

        Mr. Swanzey, you are entitled to your opinion, but please stop making statements that are untrue. Perhaps you have been misinformed. Regardless, there are many false and misleading statements in what you are posting here. Please stick to the many positive things you can promote about trails without all the childish mudslinging. You are a public servant, and you should behave like one.

  7. CP

    If the facts in favor of retaining and improving the railroad in the U&D corridor aren’t enough, allow me to appeal to your emotions.

    Perhaps the legislators of Ulster County might consider this scenario. It is fall, 2015. Your young child (or grandchild) asks, “Daddy, can we go ride the Polar Express again?” And you have to say, “No, son (or daughter), because Daddy voted to rip up the tracks.”

    Please, legislators, consider the train’s positive long-term effect on the area’s businesses and tourism vs. a premature termination of rail’s future in the entire U&D corridor. Support the railroad (with or without the trail) and give it an honest chance to fulfill its promise. I predict it will deliver on it far more than trail-only ever will.

    Thank you.

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