A Magazine About Food, Art & Exchange In Midtown Kingston, Published By The Hudson Valley Current.

Reclaiming the Rails: Catskill Mountain Railroad to Offer Rail Bike Tours

After a heated struggle in which it seemed the railroad might be lost forever, the Catskill Mountain Railroad (CMRR) and Ulster County have reached an agreement that will preserve the rails while offering visitors a whole new way to ride.

The Ulster & Delaware rail corridor, once marketed as “the only all rail route to the Catskill Mountains,” extends from Kingston Point on the Hudson River, through the verdant Catskill Mountains to Oneonta. Designed in 1897 by famed landscape architect and Kingston resident Calvert Vaux, the rail line’s eastern terminus at Kingston Rotary Park was once a huge tourist attraction in its own right, with rambling paths and carefully sited gazebos overlooking a romantic bridge and lagoon.

Trolley tracks and a trail, the Kingston Greenway, will traverse Kingston’s historic neighborhoods to the Catskill Mountain Railroad ticket booth in Kingston Plaza. CMRR’s former stockyard, near the Lace Mill artists’ housing in the nascent Midtown Arts District, will be transformed into a park.

A privately owned, volunteer-run heritage railroad, the CMRR has been operating in Phoenicia and Kingston for over 25 years. In Phoenicia, tubers rode the scenic train for the return trip along the Esopus. In Kingston, the railroad has grown from a tiny stretch from Cornell Street to the bridge over the Sawkill, to crossing the fields and inching ever closer to the Ashokan Reservoir, a route that seemed to expand daily. Fans would watch railroader Ryan Lennox’s Facebook wall for photos and updates as track was repaired and added.

CMRR ran its own carefully collected and restored rail stock. In the last days of  the 25-year contract, an antique steam engine pulled the train. In summer, CMRR hosts a wildly popular “Day Out With Thomas,” based on the popular British book and television series Thomas the Tank Engine. At Halloween time, Snoopy conducts and the train stops to allow families to search for the perfect jack-o’-lantern. At Christmastime, families drove hundreds of miles to mount the Polar Express, complete with Santa and magical sleigh bells.

The beloved special events fueled considerable tourism.

Over 11,000 tickets were sold in a single weekend for Thomas the Tank Engine, 70 percent of them to visitors from outside Ulster County. Ticket sales exceeded $200,000, gift sales topped $80,000, and over $10,000 went straight to the county coffers. For every ticket sold, the railroad handed out “Rail Dollars,” allowing CMRR to track the impact on the local economy and build support among local businesses.

The 25-year lease ended in 2016, amid a huge push by environmentalists to convert the whole line to a trail-only rail trail. The issue so divided Ulster County that popular county executive Mike Hein, a trail-only proponent at the time, was criticized for his stance. Protests regularly erupted at the Ulster County Office Building; both sides engaged lawyers.

But just when things looked utterly bleak, the parties came together and reached a beautiful resolution. CMRR’s new lease ends in 2020 and requires a fixed yearly fee of $50,000. It’s hoped that the clarity and brevity of the new contract, which has won praises from both sides, will help avoid the frustrations that led to both parties being mired in litigation and the near-extinction of the beloved rail line.

CMRR will run trains on the 6.2 miles of track from Mount Tremper to Phoenicia until October 2016. Next spring, Saranac lake-based Rail Explorers will begin operations on that stretch, bringing rail biking to the Catskills for the first time ever. Rail bikes are two- and four-passenger people-powered vehicles that straddle the tracks and are reportedly easy to pedal, functioning much like a pedal boat.

Rail Explorers, a self-described eco-tourism company with a focus on waste reduction, has been operating in Delaware and in the Adirondacks since 2015.

According to the company’s online description, “Riders are spread out with up to three hundred feet between you and those in front and behind. The front and rear guides ensure that everyone arrives safely; the distance between the bikes allows everyone to go at their own pace and enjoy the magic of riding the rails in solitude.”

Rail bike tours will run seven days a week from April to October in 2017, while the CMRR will continue to provide its smash-hit tourist attraction at the Kingston end of the line; importantly, the rails will remain intact for potential future use. CMRR president and CEO Ernie Hunt is enthusiastic.

“We’re excited to be in a positive partnership relationship,” says Hunt.  “Especially after such a rough bit of road.”