WARREN COUNTY — As the parent company of the Saratoga & North Creek Railway deals with fallout over the storage of empty rail cars in the Adirondack Park, its president has warned that the scenic tourism train may have made its final run.
Meeting Thursday with Warren County’s Public Works Committee, Iowa Pacific Holdings President Ed Ellis offered to sell the tracks north of North Creek to the county for $5 million, saying Iowa Pacific can’t continue to lose money on the line. Most of that track is actually in Essex County.
“We aren’t able to continue to operate the railroad financially and lose money,” said Ellis, whose Chicago-based company owns a number of small rail lines around the country. “There is either a purchase of the Tahawus line, or we are done.”
Ellis said previously that the tourism line has lost money consistently since it opened in 2011, and he needed to find other sources of revenue to keep the business running.
Warren County owns the tracks from Corinth to North Creek, but the 30-mile section from North Creek to the former titanium mine at Tahawus is owned by Iowa Pacific through a subsidiary. The company bought the line in 2011 with the idea it could be used to haul commercial rock fill out of Tahawus, though nothing has ever come of those plans.
The Saratoga & Northway Creek Railway, in 2011, began operating a seasonal scenic train on 30 miles of track through woods and along the Hudson River between Saratoga Springs and North Creek. The original dream of having “ski trains” run from New York City to North Creek in the winter months never took off, and in recent years, the number of scenic runs has dwindled.
Johnsburg Town Supervisor Andrea Hogan, whose town includes North Creek, said cancellation of train service would be “a blow to the community,” but service has been deteriorating and hard feelings increasing in the last couple of years.
Inconsistent schedules, maintenance problems and a general lack of communication have caused hard feelings and difficulties,” she said in an email. “I honestly don’t see any scenario here that works out to the benefit of North Creek. We’ve all mulled this possibility over, and we’re ready for this.”
In January, Warren County Board Chairman Ron Conover, R-Bolton, said in his inauguration message to the Board of Supervisors that it might be time for the county to rethink its lease with Iowa Pacific, a contract that was renewed two years ago for an additional five years.
“I think the prudent thing at this stage is to begin to investigate whether a recreational trail should be created, by whom, at what cost, for which users; we should also ask how to pay for its creation and maintenance,” Conover said at the time.
Ellis has encountered resistance, including from Warren County leaders, to Iowa Pacific’s efforts to store unused freight cars, including empty oil tankers on the Tahawus track. That line runs deep through the state-owned Adirondack Forest Preserve, often adjacent to the wild Boreas River. Cars were stored there in October, and while public pressure prompted billionaire investor Warren Buffett to order tank cars owned by one of his companies removed from the line, about 80 cars remain on the track, immovable until after the snows melt.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo made removal of the stored cars one of his 2018 State of the State proposals, and the state has filed a motion with the U.S. Department of Transportation to have the rail line declared abandoned, saying, in effect, that the line is no longer being used as a working railroad. The Surface Transportation Board in February issued procedural rulings in the state’s favor, though a final ruling has not come.
Warren County Supervisor Claudia Braymer, D-Glens Falls, who is an environmental lawyer, said an end to the scenic train’s operation could be an opportunity to develop a recreational trail in the rail line’s place — one that could take cyclists and other recreation seekers deep into the wilderness.
“Despite years of trying, the tourist railroad business and the business of moving freight by rail over Warren County’s rail line has failed. It’s time for the county to get out of the railroad business,” Braymer said on Twitter Thursday night. “The corridor will make a great multi-use trail that will benefit residents and visitors.”
In an interview Friday, Braymer, who was at Thursday’s meeting with Ellis, said the issue came to a head because the railroad owes the county about $28,000 in track lease payments, going back about six months.
“Yes, I think they’re getting ready to pull the plug on the tourism train,” she said. “I think the rail/biking thing could work out. I posted it on Facebook, and there’s been tremendous response.”
Warren County officials haven’t responded to Ellis, other than acting County Administrator Kevin Geraghty saying at the meeting that there was “no way” the county would pay $5 million for the tracks. Geraghty was on vacation Friday and not available for comment.
The environmental group Protect the Adirondacks is among those fighting the rail storage plan, and its executive director, Peter Bauer, said the idea of a rail-to-trail conversion is worth exploring.
“County leaders are saying the scenic train hasn’t worked out that well, and maybe we should look at rail-to-trail, and actually, that might be awesome,” Bauer said. “It seems like that might be a really good fit. It’s spectacular; it goes right along the river.”
The track from Saratoga Springs to Corinth is owned by the town of Corinth. Town Supervisor Richard Lucia could not be reached for comment on Friday.
The track from North Creek to Tahawus was built during World War II because of an “emergency” need for titanium, but many environmentalists contend a rail track violates the spirit of the state’s “forever wild” forest preserve, and it should never have been built.