This year, Ulster County won the battle with Catskill Mountain Railroad (CMRR) in the county’s bid to prioritize the construction of rail trails along the former Ulster & Delaware railroad corridor from Kingston to Highmount. But the voices urging preservation of the rails themselves continue to be heard, despite the court’s gag order preventing CMRR members from expressing preservationist sentiments.
An independent group has converted SaveTheRails.org, an early preservation effort, into the Ulster & Delaware Railway Revitalization Corporation (UDRRC). The non-profit, now with 501(c)(3) designation, has come out in favor of rail-plus-trail, with an emphasis on keeping the tracks intact for future development, possibly of a modern light-rail commuter line.
“People see us at rallies and think we’re CMRR,” said UDRRC president Russ Bonk, a Dutchess County resident and former truck driver. “We’re salt and they’re pepper — two different groups working toward the same goal.”
CMRR’s emphasis has generally been on historic trains, such as the diesel engines and antique train cars that have just finished their last season of running tourist rides between Phoenicia and Mount Tremper. (CMRR continues to operate an excursion route within the city of Kingston, but the Phoenicia line will be taken over by Rail Explorers, which provides bicycles that run on rails.) UDRRC ‘s vision of the future includes serving the whole 38-mile corridor with light-rail trains that are low-friction, economical, energy-efficient, and less polluting than the old diesel engines.
The group has a challenge ahead of them, since the county is basing its rail trail decisions on a report from Stone Consulting and Design, whose “Highest and Best Use Recommendation” for the corridor includes ripping up tracks because they have been deemed too expensive to rehabilitate. The report observes that parts of the corridor do not have room for rail and trail to coexist side by side. Bonk agrees that there is a problem but believes that “side by side” is not a necessity. “The rails are fixed,” he said, “but the trail could be variable. You could deviate the trail downward or outward, around the rock cuts, and then meet up with the rails farther on.”
In an October 31 Facebook post, county legislator James Maloney, Chairman of the U&D Trail and Rail Advisory Committee, expressed frustration that railroaders who supported the resolution establishing the rail-vs-trail compromise “are now upset that we are moving forward with the policies spelled out in that document,” which specifies that rails are to be removed only by legislative resolution.
County Executive Mike Hein refuses to meet with UDRRC, but members had a discussion a few months ago with Deputy Executive Ken Crannell and county planning department officials Dennis Doyle and Chris White. “They dug their heels in, gave us their talking points, and said they’re going with the Stone Report,” said Bonk.
The group got a more favorable response from Assemblyman Kevin Cahill, who has had several battles with Hein in recent years. Cahill suggested UDRRC meet with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). “They’ve both had recent changes in leadership,” said Bonk. “We’re looking to set up a meeting, along with Cahill, to discuss where they stand and would like to go in the future.”
Now that it has non-profit status, UDRRC is eligible to apply for grants. Bonk said a recently planned fundraiser was cancelled at the last minute because of a derailment of the engine that was to provide rides for guests on CMRR’s Phoenicia-to-Mount Tremper route. A website for train enthusiasts, trainorders.com, reported that the accident caused no injuries, as two coaches, containing about a dozen passengers, remained on the tracks. The writer added, “It is expected that no more passenger runs will be made subject to rerailing and regage of the track.” The post was later edited to omit mention of the derailment.
UDRRC may be at a disadvantage in the struggle with the county, but its members are passionate. “I’ve been a rail buff since I was old enough to say ‘choo-choo train,’” said Bonk. “I want to save the historical value of the rails that people gave their toil, blood, sweat, and tears to build. I also think it will benefit the residents of Ulster County and beyond.”