hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires




Saratoga line puts tourist trains to test

Ambitious new operation creates a link to the Adirondacks


Contributing writer


For the first time in 55 years, regularly scheduled passenger trains started running last month between Saratoga Springs and the Adirondack village of North Creek.

The tourist trains, following a scenic route along the upper Hudson River, have long been the dream of some local politicians and business owners in the southern Adirondacks. But it took more than 15 years – and an investment of about $10 million in federal money – to revitalize the nearly 60-mile-long route and make that dream a reality.

Earlier this year, Warren County, which owns the bulk of the line from Saratoga to North Creek, chose a new operator for the line. And the operator, Iowa Pacific Holdings LLC, based in Chicago, brought in new cars, including a wide-view dome car.

Starting July 23, the company began running trains five days a week along the length of the route, replacing what had been a low-profit, short-distance excursion line in North Creek with a service that links the Adirondacks to the national rail network through connections to Amtrak trains at Saratoga Springs.

An invitation-only trip on July 20 gave local politicians and the press a chance to try out the new trains, and it brought glowing reviews from those fortunate enough to be aboard – even from some county supervisors who in recent years had questioned whether fixing up the railroad line was a wise use of public money.

“The cars are exquisite,” said Kate Johnson, director of the Warren County Tourism Department. “The scenery is spectacular. A whole new route into the Adirondacks has been exposed.”

Corinth Supervisor Richard Lucia described food service in the dome car that featured linen tablecloths, china and silverware.

“The cars are absolutely beautiful,” Lucia said. “The menu is excellent and reasonably priced.”

“The dome car was really stunning,” said Queensbury Supervisor Dan Stec, the chairman of the Warren County Board of Supervisors.

The train’s average speed is only about 30 mph, so it takes two hours to cover the distance from Saratoga Springs to North Creek. But given the winding roads in the mountainous area, “you couldn’t do much better if you were in a car,” Stec said.

Slow path to a rail revival

The Delaware & Hudson Railway abandoned freight service on the line to North Creek in 1989, and Warren County bought most of the defunct line in 1997. Before he retired in 1999, the late U.S. Rep. Gerald B. Solomon, R-Queensbury, earmarked an initial round of federal funds to rehabilitate the line to support the county’s goal of a tourist-train operation.

Warren County supervisors initially hired the Upper Hudson River Railroad, a subsidiary of W.J. Riegel & Sons Railroad of Selkirk, to run a summertime excursion train out of North Creek. But that service, which started in 1998, was limited, offering only 50 runs per season over 16 miles of track.

County supervisors were unhappy both with the cost of maintaining the line, which is prone to washouts, and the small financial return -- less than $20,000 in 2010 -- from the operator. Last year, the county sought a new round of proposals from companies interested in operating the line.

Upper Hudson, the company that had been running it, was one of three outfits that submitted proposals. But supervisors soon focused on Iowa Pacific, which was already running six tourist railroads in the United States and Great Britain. The company also is a shareholder in a rail line that servers Machu Picchu, Peru.

According to its Web site, Iowa Pacific was formed in 2004 to acquire railroads and create rail-related businesses. It focuses on “smaller feeder railroads with annual revenues of $10 million and less.”

Sarah Munley, the company’s director of sales and marketing for passenger operations, said Iowa Pacific was interested in the Warren County line as a way of getting a foothold in the Northeast. All of its other U.S. passenger operations are in western states: Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Oregon.

Also, she said, the Adirondack line had potential for true passenger and freight service through the connection at Saratoga Springs.

Preserving a freight link

The Saratoga County town of Corinth had its own interest in the line. The town owns the 16.2 miles of track from the Saratoga Springs station to Antone Mountain Road, near the town’s northern boundary, and a spur to the site of the former International Paper mill in the village of Corinth.

When the mill shut down in 2003, Canadian Pacific, which owned the line, wanted to tear up the rails and sell them for scrap, Lucia said. Using a portion of the money set aside by Solomon and other funds, the town was able to buy the track. Although the paper mill has been demolished, town and county officials see a functional rail line as an important tool to attract new industries to the site.

Under a contract approved in April, Warren County and the town of Corinth will receive 6 percent of the gross revenue generated by the new Saratoga and North Creek Railway, as Iowa Pacific is calling its local operating company. For the first year, payments to the town and county will range from a minimum of $81,958 up to $190,000.

Most of this money will be set aside for track maintenance, Lucia said. In return, Iowa Pacific will pay taxes on the line and take care of repairs costing less than $50,000.

Iowa Pacific also guarantees it will run a minimum of 100 tourist trains per year, including at least 30 wintertime ski trains to North Creek, the home of Gore Mountain, and at least one Thomas the Tank Engine event and a Polar Express train at Christmastime.

Iowa Pacific had hoped to start service on July 1, Munley said, but the inaugural run was delayed by some communications problems that had to be resolved first.

The new service

From now until the end of the season on Oct. 30, the train will make three runs a day, Thursday through Monday. The first leaves North Creek at 7 a.m. and arrives in Saratoga Springs at 9 a.m. to connect with Amtrak service to Albany and New York City. The train then leaves Saratoga Springs at 10 a.m. and arrives in North Creek around noon.

An excursion train, the Merganser, then makes a round trip of a little less than three hours between North Creek and Hadley-Luzerne. Then it leaves North Creek for Saratoga Springs at 3:45 p.m., and, after receiving connecting passengers from Amtrak, arrives back in North Creek around 9 p.m. (11:35 p.m. on Fridays).

All of the trips offer American-style meals and beverage service appropriate to the time of day. Food is prepared in a galley on the lower level of the dome car.

In addition to Saratoga Springs and North Creek, the trains make seven flag stops: at Corinth, Hadley-Luzerne, Stony Creek, Thurman, Glen Hudson Campground, The Glen and Riparius-Riverside. These stops are made only if someone is waiting to get on or off. Facilities at the flag stops range from platforms with shelters to nothing at all, in which case the conductors unfold a set of stairs from the car and help passengers off and on.

Lucia said volunteers are building a new depot in Corinth to replace the old one, which had to be razed.

Munley said travelers can choose to ride in either of two double-decker coach cars, which each have a capacity of 90 passengers and formerly ran on the Long Island Railroad, or the 1950s-era dome car. The dome car, which requires an extra fare, can seat 72, but the ticket office usually sells only 60 seats so that passengers will have more room. All three cars have air conditioning and restrooms.

Fares range from $13 for a one-way adult coach ticket to $40 for an all-day adult pass on the dome car. Seniors and children under 12 receive discounts, and children under 2 ride free. There’s no extra charge for luggage or sports equipment.

Tapping new tourism markets

Officials in Saratoga and Warren counties say they’re excited about how the train can boost tourism, both for visitors and for local people who now have easier access to places outside their community.

Todd Shimkus, president of the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce, pointed out that 32,000 people got on or off Amtrak trains at the Saratoga Springs station last year.

“Saratoga is blessed with a wide range of tourism destinations,” Shimkus said. “Anything you can do to expand the mix is helpful.”

The Saratoga and North Creek Railway could attract rail fans singly and in groups, he said.

“The dome car has a real draw in that market,” Shimkus said. “The other cars are nice, but the dome car is special.”

Shimkus said he would like to promote more green tourism in the area, cultivating “a market that now we’re missing.” The Adirondacks have many miles of bike trails, for example, and environmentally minded tourists would appreciate the chance to reach the Adirondacks by public transportation.

But Amtrak doesn’t take bicycles on its passenger trains. Shimkus said the chamber is lobbying to have that changed.

“The tourism opportunity is great,” said Joanne Yepsen, who represents Saratoga Springs on the Saratoga County Board of Supervisors. She sees the train as an extra attraction for people who come to Saratoga for conventions and the racing season. The train could also be a resource for theme events, parties, and corporate functions.

One drawback is that the Saratoga Springs station is a long way from downtown.

“It will be largely up to local businesses to link with the train station,” Yepsen said.

Stec, the Queensbury supervisor, sees vacationers in New York City, whether traveling to a second home or going skiing at Gore Mountain, getting on Amtrak at Penn Station and riding all the way to North Creek without having to fight traffic. They can even have a drink on the train.

“You can start enjoying your vacation right away,” he said.

A rail link to Manhattan also has the potential to open up the area to tourists who wouldn’t otherwise drive, as more than half of households in New York City don’t own cars.

Lucia pointed out that the train expands recreation opportunities for local people too. His constituents in Corinth, for example, can now take the train to Saratoga Springs for the day or take advantage of golf, swimming, horseback riding and other activities at flag stops such as 1000 Acres Ranch in Stony Creek, he said.

Beyond tourism, officials see potential for more efficient regional transportation and economic development.

Yepsen said she wants to promote alternative transportation and improved connections between different kinds of transportation, especially to relieve congestion on the Northway between Saratoga Springs and the Albany area. Direct rail service to and from the Adirondacks could be part of that.

“If we have to widen the Northway, we’ve failed,” she said.

There’s also a possibility of restoring regular freight service on the line. Barton Mines, a garnet mine northwest of North Creek, has a heavy, bulky product that’s ideal for rail transportation, Stec said.

And beyond North Creek, an abandoned rail line continues more than 27 miles north to Tahawus, the site of an inactive titanium mine. Although Stec said he knows of no plans to reopen the mine, he suggested the availability of rail freight service could make that possibility more attractive.

Lucia voiced the only concern about the new train. Trains haven’t run through Corinth for so long that people have forgotten to watch for them at grade crossings, he said. Although all the crossing signals have been improved, he’s worried that someone will ignore the warnings.

Still, Lucia says he’s heard from many people who are happy the trains are running again.

“They’re nostalgic about hearing the train whistles,” he said.

For more information about the Saratoga and North Creek Railway, visit the Web site www.sncrr.com or call 1-877-726-7245.

Your Ad could be Here