Letter to the Editor: "Removing the Catskill Mountain Railroad is morally wrong"

This article is written in response to a letter to the editor published on November 26, 2012. -- Julia Reischel

Dear Editor,

I am writing in response to a letter posted here & comments at last week's Special Session of the UC Legislature by Kathy Nolan. Ms. Nolan advocated for a "World Class Network of Trails" to replace the Catskill Mountain Railroad over most of the railroad line . Ms. Nolan states the truth about the Catskill Mountain Railroad, but not the true story. She is correct: the Catskill Mountain Railroad is for profit corporation. However, she fails to tell the rest of the truth. No one on the CMRR ever made a dime from it.

We put our own money, heavy equipment time, and infinite amounts of sweat equity into the railroad. The railroad makes money from fares charged. However, a portion of that money is paid to Ulster County under the terms of CMRR's lease. The rest of the monies from fares goes to rebuild, repair and maintain the track and right of way and meeting our operating expenses. We carry insurance on the railroad and maintain it at our expense. We put countless numbers of ties, spikes, ballast stone, culverts, steel, concrete, etc, into the railroad. Over the past 30 years, our group has been working on saving the railroad. We put money into the county coffers. Our trains attract ridership, including charter bus groups.

We are strictly a volunteer organization with about 125 volunteers. Volunteers furnish labor, heavy equipment, and bring expertise and credentials with them. We have jacked up, realigned and rebuilt steel bridges. We have worked endlessly on the railroad. Ms. Nolan stated in last week's special session of the Ulster County Legislature and elsewhere that CMRR has not done enough to rebuild the railroad, and cannot handle more than 5 miles of track. Does Ms. Nolan have experience or credentials in engineering, heavy construction or railroading ? Reducing the CMRR to a landlocked 5-mile track is unacceptable and kills the railroad. We have been rebuilding the line from Kingston west, and from Phoenicia eastward. It is our intention to run trains from Kingston to Phoenicia. We dealt with washouts, neglect from CONRAIL's abandonment, and the ravages of nature. We have worked with a minimal budget, and we have accomplished a great deal, contrary to Ms. Nolan's assessment of our efforts.

If the Trails group is concerned about the preservation of the railroad corridor, where were they when there were floods, washouts, downed trees, blocked or collapsed culverts, unsound bridges, and a host more things to be dealt with? Maybe they were not in the region when we started our efforts to save the line, but they now want to take over after we've saved the line and done the work. I doubt many of the Trails group has ever been on the blister end of a pickaxe, heaved cross ties, felled too many trees, or run heavy equipment or jacked up and realigned any steel bridges. We have.

We know our railroad, and the work involved. We fought to keep the line, and we started with second-hand or junk maintenance of way equipment, overhauled the equipment, and built up a fleet of good running reliable equipment for grading, removing or inserting ties, spiking, and more. We went from hand methods of re-laying track to mechanized methods and sped up our track work. We obtained rail mounted excavating and grading equipment, and work sped up even more. We obtained rolling stock and locomotives, and we got some of that up to Phoenicia, and some in Kingston. We overhauled, restored, and brought working full sized trains to the line.

What Ms. Nolan fails to acknowledge is we SAVED the railroad line -- literally. We started with nothing. We took over a line that was abandoned by Penn Central, and left to deteriorate. The real estate that is the railroad right of way was to be sold off to private owners by Ulster County. We saved the line from total obliteration. If the group that became the Catskill Mountain Railroad had not spoken up and organized, there would be NO railroad at this point in time.

No one seemed to step up to advocate for a trail along the railroad back then. We fought to save the railroad, and we did -- NOT the trails people.

We began with minimal equipment and a few dedicated people. We grew to over 125 active volunteers. We developed our people, attracted many amazing individuals who brought necessary skills, expertise and credentials into our organization. Volunteers were trained by our group and many learned diverse skills such as running heavy equipment, welding, rigging, pipefitting, and basic heavy construction work. We developed train crews, and our train crews work under the rules of the US Federal Railroad Administration, and where applicable, are licensed by that entity. We run our own training programs, and we have a stringent safety program. The work involved is never-ending. We know what the work is about, and we never backed away from it; only grew and got stronger.

I do not know what Ms. Nolan, et al, thinks building trails is all about. It is not much different than putting in the road bed for a railroad. Making a trail requires similar clearing, grubbing and grading along with drainage work. The Catskill Mountain Railroad has developed the people and resources to do this class of work. We do it at our expense, with our people sitting in the seats of the equipment, or on the ground. When there is surveying or engineering, we do that as well. Anything from cutting brush to steel fabrication, cut and grade work, rebuilding culverts, rebuilding bridges, overhauling and repairing heavy equipment to do the work on the railroad, we do it all. We track the man hours and heavy equipment hours and materials we put back into the Catskill Mountain Railroad. This is submitted to Ulster County. In just the past three years or so, the value of the services and materials put back into the railroad and right of way by the Catskill Mountain Railroad was in excess of one million dollars ($1,000,000.00).

I have been a Licensed Professional Engineer for 36 years, and been with the Catskill Mountain Railroad since 1986. A good portion of my professional career has been in heavy construction, out in the field. As a Professional Engineer familiar with heavy construction and the railroad , I KNOW it is unrealistic and unfeasible to make the entire railroad line into a trail. A study done by the Trail committee echoed my opinion as to the feasability of converting the railroad line to a trail. It can be done in pieces, but not continuously.

What WILL work and be a win for everyone is Rails WITH Trails. CMRR has already prepared a plan and offered to cut and grade some trails alongside the right of way. No answer from the Trails group on that idea. As near as we can figure from Ms. Nolan's remark that "all the Catskill Mountain Railroad can realistically manage is about 5 miles of track," it would seem Ms. Nolan wants the track over the whole line to be taken up for this "world class trail network" she advocates for.

The line up Hurley Mountain climbs a steep grade, beyond design specs for public usage trails. To cut and grade a new trail up Hurley Mountain meeting current codes and specifications for public access trails would be a very expensive undertaking. The line runs in deep rock cuts and up on high, narrow fills or embankments. There are places on the line that lend themselves to "Rails WITH Trails," but a dedicated trail over the length of the rail line is impractical and exceedingly costly.

At present, CMRR has been restoring and rebuilding the line at a cost of approximately $120,000 per mile. As a part of that, CMRR buys the ties, ballast stone, spikes, rail joint bars, and does the heavy equipment work. To build a trail to minimum specifications, of proper width and gradients and surfacing would be approximately $200,000 per mile. If the trail were to be hard paved for bicycling or disabled persons to use, the cost is on the order of $500,000 per mile.

CMRR has been doing their own work, filing for some grants, but mostly working with their own resources. We are resourceful and self-sufficient at nearly all levels. If Ms. Nolan and the Trail Group take over, who would foot the bill for building and maintaining the trail? The TAXPAYERS.

CMRR puts money into the county coffers AND brings a large ridership who spend money in Ulster County. A Rail Trail will simply be a burden to the County and to the taxpayers. The railroad is a historic asset, and a part of our heritage as well as a means to bring tourism and business into our region. It contributes to charitable causes, and has helped a number of young people, some "at risk," develop into careers as professional railroaders on mainline railroads. CMRR contributes not only monetarily to the community, but in many other positive ways. Some of the more visible ways are with runs donated to charitable causes, or by donations of some of the proceeds of runs in Kingston to charitable causes.

We will co-exist, but we will not vacate our railroad. To advocate for a Rails-to-Trails or "World Class Network of Trails" by removing the Catskill Mountain Railroad is morally wrong. It is a wrongful taking of the rights to the railroad, an obliteration of the region's heritage, and the hard work and efforts of our group over the past 30 years.

The process by which the plan to scrap the rails west of Phoenicia occurred was done in the most underhanded way imaginable. We, the Catskill Mountain Railroad, hold a lease on the line from Kingston to Highmount, including the rails west of Phoenicia. We first learned of the plan to scrap the rails west of Phoenicia from an article in the "Freeman." This smacks of a back room deal. It is in violation of our lease. We have made more than good faith effort to abide by the terms of our lease with Ulster County.

The County, instead of keeping the Ulster County Railroad Advisory Committee in place, disbanded it over two years ago. In the meanwhile, the Trails committee is a functioning entity. We wonder what really went on? The efforts by Ms. Nolan to take over the Catskill Mountain Railroad ROW for a trail is founded on half truths, with a total disregard for the efforts of a dedicated group of people over 30 years. It is a move that could teach the Israelis something in the West Bank.

J.M.Michaels, PE