Train to Pine Hill? Delaware & Ulster Railroad eyes eastward expansion

The little engine that could: A Delaware & Ulster Railroad engine pulls into the Belleayre depot on Thursday, October 3. Aboard, left to right: Donald Bishop, executive director of the A. Lindsay & Olive B. O'Connor Foundation; Dave Riordan, executive director of DURR; and Nicholas VanSteenburg, maintenance worker for DURR. Photo by Lissa Harris. 

It's a sound that hasn't been heard on Belleayre for more than a decade: The chug-chug-chug of a railroad engine. 

On the brilliant autumn afternoon of Thursday, October 3, the Delaware & Ulster Railroad (DURR), a nonprofit railroad company that runs tourist trains between Arkville and Roxbury, sent one of its trains east from Arkville. Without much fanfare, the 1962 ALCO RS-36 pulled up to the little wooden platform on Route 28 in Highmount, at the base of the Belleayre Ski Center. 

The train carried no paying passengers, and only a couple of local reporters were on hand to witness its arrival. But DURR's executive director Dave Riordan is hoping Ulster County officials, who he says have been skeptical of the railroad's capacity for expansion, will take notice.

"This is very much an effort to show them that we can do this," Riordan said. "They've said to us, 'You can't even get a train up to Highmount.'"

For much of the last year, Ulster County has been embroiled in an increasingly nasty public battle with the Catskill Mountain Railroad (CMRR), which occupies the eastern end of the old Ulster & Delaware rail corridor. The county, which owns the tracks and is leasing them to the railroad, is seeking to shut down the railroad's Kingston portion in order to build a rail trail for walkers and bikers that will stretch from Kingston all the way to Belleayre, and connect to a larger trail system in the Hudson Valley. 

But while the county and the for-profit CMRR duke it out in court and in the headlines of local papers, DURR has been quietly working toward expanding into Ulster County -- fixing long-unused track, repairing damage wrought by the Irene floods, and courting the support of the railroad's financial backers at the Hobart-based A. Lindsay and Olive B. O'Connor Foundation for an eastward expansion.

The real prize for DURR, as far as Riordan is concerned, would be the reopening of the old Ulster & Delaware double horseshoe, a stretch of track in Pine Hill that negotiates a challenging slope on the eastern face of Belleayre. The two sweeping curves, looping back and forth across the mountainside, have a steep 3.2 percent grade, and offer a panoramic view of the valley below. 

"It's the most significant piece of railroad track on the East Coast, if you ask me," Riordan said. "We think it would be a tremendous boost to the Ulster County economy to open it up."

The double horseshoe curve in Pine Hill, along with the rest of the Ulster & Delaware railbed east of Highmount, is currently leased to the Catskill Mountain Railroad. Riordan said that so far, DURR's overtures to Ulster County officials for an eastward expansion have been met with skepticism. Before exploring the possibility of a lease, Riordan said, the county wanted an assurance that the railroad's financial support -- the lion's share of which comes from the O'Connor Foundation -- would continue.

"I cannot guarantee that that support is going to continue," Riordan said. "Without that guarantee, Ulster County is not very interested." 

Ulster County executive Mike Hein said that so far, only very preliminary conversations have occurred between the county and DURR.

"Our focus at this moment, throughout the [Ulster & Delaware] corridor, is connecting the Walkway Over the Hudson to the Ashokan Reservoir via rail trail, and having a rail provider running from Boiceville to Phoenicia," Hein said. "We clearly are open to additional ideas west of Phoenicia."

Belleayre Mountain may prove a tall obstacle to get over. But Riordan is optimistic.

"This is the beginning of the return of rail service to the western end of Ulster County," Riordan said. "We put the cash on the table, now we're putting the locomotive on the mountain."