Catskill Mountain Railroad (CMRR) plans to ask Ulster County and Rail Explorers, the rail bike company designated by the county to take over the western end of what was CMRR’s tourist rail operation, if the railroad can run its trains occasionally on the county tracks, particularly in the fall foliage season. Furthermore, CMRR does not plan to move its train cars off its residentially zoned property anytime soon, given that it has no place to put them that the railroad deems appropriate.
CMRR president Ernie Hunt made the statements in a letter to the Town of Shandaken, responding to the town’s request for a timeline for removal of trains CMRR had transferred surreptitiously from the county tracks to its own property in Phoenicia on the weekend of January 20-21. The railroad has been trying for over a year to obtain a permit to store the trains, while facing the county’s January 29 deadline for vacating the tracks. Neighbors have objected to the granting of a permit, citing environmental, esthetic, and legal considerations.
Hunt wrote that the area of track offered by the county is not secure and leaves trains subject to graffiti and vandalism, while the cost of moving the trains would be $100,000. “We have been discussing locations for a permanent yard in Kingston with the county, but no site has been agreed to yet. It is highly likely that a new property will need to be acquired by the CMRR, rezoned, graded, and built by the CMRR before we will have room in Kingston to safely store our equipment. We believe this process will take one to two years to complete.”
Furthermore, CMRR’s lease on the eastern end of the tracks, where it still has the right to run excursion trains, is subject to cancellation by the county with only 60 days’ notice. The railroad is loath to spend the money to move its trains when it could be kicked out again. “We will be asking the county to extend this period before we spend the huge investment of a new yard in Kingston,” stated Hunt. “Until we do so it is difficult to give a precise timeline for vacating our property in Phoenicia.”
Hunt pointed out that CMRR has stored a boxcar on its property for 27 years without objection, and the company believes it has the right to continue to store trains without a permit.
No sharing with Rail Explorer
Sharing the tracks with Rail Explorer is not an option for CMRR, according to Chris White, Deputy Director of the Ulster County Planning Department, who was involved in putting out a request for proposals for use of the county tracks last year, when CMRR’s lease on the tracks expired.
He said, “Use of the western segment was awarded to Rail Explorers for five years because it will operate more frequently for a longer season, provide the county a higher use fee, and attract more visitors to the area than CMRR, as well as employ 22 local people.” White also noted that CMRR was made aware it could not operate together with Rail Explorers on the western segment due to logistical, regulatory, and other issues but noted CMRR has a multi-year permit to continue operations in the Kingston area.
As for the possibility of renegotiating CMRR’s permit with the county, said White, “All county agreements now include a provision for termination with 60 days’ notice, which are rarely used unless something egregious happens.”
He also noted that CMRR had previously informed the county that it would move its equipment to Kingston in the coming months, and the county was aware of only one minor graffiti issue in recent years in Kingston.
Letter from DOT
Alex Catchpoole, owner of Rail Explorers, said his company has not been approached by CMRR, although he heard about Hunt’s letter to the town. “I understand they’d like to duplicate their success with fall foliage rides they had last year, but that’s our big season as well,” said Catchpoole. “To lose days to the railroad would take a chunk out of our revenue.” The permit granted by the county forbids Rail Explorers from granting access to any other operator. Catchpoole said the company’s tours in the Adirondacks drew 26,000 riders last year.
Regarding Hunt’s letter, town Supervisor Rob Stanley remarked, “We are not completely satisfied with the response but will continue moving this conversation forward with them to find a resolution. CMRR is still pursuing a permit through the planning board. In the interim, and in the absence of a permit, the town is still in conversation with our attorney to investigate our options moving forward.”
On February 8, Harry Jameson of CMRR presented the Town of Shandaken Planning Board with a letter from Greg Hart, Region 8 Rail Coordinator of the New York State Department of Transportation (DOT), indicating that the rail company’s activities qualify as “‘public transportation use’ with respect to the Town of Shandaken zoning code.” This designation, if valid, would justify CMRR’s application for a special permit to store trains on its residentially zoned property. Lawyers for the Phoenicia neighbors have argued that a tourist railroad does not fulfill the requirements to be considered public transportation and that such an designation would have to come from the state’s transportation commission.
After receiving the letter, the planning board prepared to return to considering CMRR’s application, pending review of the letter by the town attorney.