Letter to the Editor: How about rail with trail?

Above: David Lionel's video, "Let's Restore Reservoir Railroading!" It can also be found at www.transformationaledu.org.

Dear Editor: 


Last fall I completed a short video called “Let’s Restore Reservoir Railroading!” Since then, events have progressed ominously for the railroad faction. Ulster County Executive Mike Hein is promoting a “world class” Rail Trail from the Walkway over the Hudson to Highmount at the Belleayre Ski Center, a total of nearly 60 miles at a (never mentioned) cost of $40 million and twenty years to complete.


Rail Trail normally involves putting a trail on an abandoned railroad Right of Way. But in this case, the railroad is still very much alive. Catskill Mountain Railroad (CMRR) volunteers have just laboriously restored the rails from their Kingston yard west nearly to Route 209. Tobe Carey documents the final triumphant moments beautifully in his brief "CMRR Volunteers Train Across the C-9 Bridge."

To sell the steel for scrap, Mike Hein has instead proposed ripping up the rails at two key points: tracks west from Kingston and from Phoenicia. Parts of both these sections run steeply uphill - not prime terrain for a Rail Trail, but perfect for a working railroad to carry hikers and bikers up the inclines from Kingston to West Hurley and from Pine Hill to Highmount.

The County Executive developed the plan to shred this historic treasure without general public input. The decision-making process should give everyone a chance to become involved in finding a solution. Future visions are likeliest to manifest when they evolve from an inclusive organic process. Whatever the ultimate result, at least a region-wide review will have taken place. In its place to date, we have the comment section of the Daily Freeman and letters to the Woodstock Times, individuals debating for or against, mostly using an us vs. them framing.


My aim is to help enable Rail with Trail from Kingston west all the way to Roxbury in Delaware County. The Alta Planning + Design 2006 report strongly supported this option, throughout the still active Ulster and Delaware rail corridor. Various co-sponsoring organizations and businesses should back the idea. It is key to include the Catskill Mountain Railroad in all plans. But we should not continue to depend on them alone to wage the good fight for the train.

Rail Trail supporters declare firmly that rail with trail is impractical for several reasons and cannot be done. Many on both sides claim we must have one or the other, each camp emerging victorious or defeated. This contest offers yet another opportunity and motivation to develop more of a collective regional consciousness. Focusing on how to serve multiple interests may reveal ways to build assets jointly.


New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation has confirmed allocating in 2014 $2 million for “the proposed public recreation trail, which will start in Kingston and follow the Ulster & Delaware line westward to the Ashokan Reservoir” - apparently over the carcass of the still breathing railroad.

Rail Trail proponents say that they are open to the railroad at least continuing to operate as a tourist train between Boiceville and Phoenicia. Yet Ulster County is so far declining to accept $2.3 million in only temporarily available Fema funds to repair the Boiceville Trestle. Another $1.1 million to refurbish the working railroad also lies dormant in County coffers. It looks as though local politicians, Republican and Democrat, are sitting silently watching, as major federal money allocated to Olive and Shandaken is NOT spent.

As for an older unpublicized item, a while back, the Delaware & Ulster Railroad in Arkville offered Ulster County to install new tracks from Highmount to Peekamoose Restaurant in Pine Hill, courtesy of $1.5 million from the O’Connor Foundation. Cash from the scrap steel could fund general revenues. The County turned them down flat, deeply dispiriting the folks in Delaware County. This ongoing conflict portends a lose (Railroad) - lose (Catskills) outcome.

I prefer to envision a win-win scenario unfolding. Composite Rail with Trail actually resolves many dilemmas Rail Trail (Trail only) faces, including maintenance income and personnel. CMRR has offered to place bike racks on its train gondolas. It will make whistle stops as needed to shuttle bikers and hikers over difficult steep grades, unstable trail sections, and restricted reservoir land areas or crew work zones.


Imagine waking up in a few years to find the entire Catskills functioning well together, at a new level of tourist attractions:

  • Rail with Trail runs from Kingston to Roxbury.
  • The New York State Governor’s promised $2 million has built the whole Rail with Trail from Mile Post 3 in Kingston to MP 11 at the Ashokan Reservoir, as already mapped by CMRR.
  • FEMA’S $2.3 million has restored the Boiceville Trestle.
  • Skiers can leave their cars and ride the rails from the Hudson River up the mountain to the enhanced Belleayre Ski Center and an environmentally sustainable Resort and Spa.
  • New York City Department of Environmental Protection permits boating on the Ashokan Reservoir and hiking and biking along parts of its south shore.
  • Movie set-like storefronts at the rail stations by the reservoir recall the lost towns the New York City waterworks drowned. Backdrops revive individual life stories and turn of the century locales.
  • Kiosks tell the tale of each vanished locality. They also point out other sites to visit nearby (walkable on foot) or within a ten-mile radius (navigable by bike or car).
  • Rail depot hubs on the whole Rail with Trail route offer stop points for hikers and bikers to get on and off the train.
  • A non-profit Public-Private Partnership manages the Rail with Trail enterprise from Kingston to Highmount. Possible members include New York City Department of Environmental Protection, New York State Department of Environmental
  • Conservation, Delaware County, Ulster County, Olympic Regional Development Authority, O’Connor Foundation, Route 28 Corridor Municipal Leaders Group, Catskill Center for Conservation and Development, Catskill Watershed Corporation, Catskill Mountain Railroad, Empire State Railway Museum, and Delaware & Ulster Railroad in Arkville.
  • At the train stations, families and friends may hire group vans – often electric jitneys - driven by knowledgeable area tour guides, to visit local attractions.
  • In Mt. Tremper, Catskill Interpretive Center staff provide travellers personalized recommendations on area sites to explore.
  • The Scenic Byway connects up the towns on Route 28 from Olive to Andes.
  • A series of twenty information kiosks, mostly along Route 28, direct tourists to trailheads, historic locations, and natural landscapes in close proximity. Paid personnel and informed volunteers man many attached roadside booths.  


These seem to me likely next steps for Rail with Trail advocates:

  • Bring together an affinity action team of concerned citizens to raise funds for a public relations campaign and other stratagems to confront the Railroad Crisis, outside CMRR’s exclusive for profit all-volunteer management and control.
  • Jujitsu RAIL TRAIL power and momentum to serve RAIL PLUS TRAIL. All the persuasive arguments for Rail Trail work just as well for Rail with Trail.
  • Under the guidance of a knowledgeable attorney, set up a framework non-profit legal entity to fund and manage the railroad Right of Way in Ulster County.
  • In person through contacts and on-line at websites, raise the alarm to alert the national railroad supporter community of the threatened end to the Ulster & Delaware Railroad’s 150 year history.
  • Schedule staging a major public event showing Rail with Trail benefits for the entire Catskill Region.
  • Set up local screenings of Tobe Carey and David Lionel’s videos as part of community mobilizations for developing the Rail With Trail option.
  • Counter-propose and put forward widely, sharing the Governor’s promised $2 million for Rail Trail only to instead build MP 3 to 11 Rail with Trail, using the fully fleshed-out CMRR project description as a guide.
  • Commission a Rail with Trail three-fold color brochure, mapping a route from Kingston to Belleayre, identifying depot transfer points, including along the Ashokan Reservoir. There, train-riding trekkers and cyclists might join scenic through-trails overlooking the water, paralleling both Routes 28A and 28.
  • Promote $5 million and three years as figures for the Rail (with Trail) installation from Route 209 west. This section along the reservoir can connect up to newly restored tracks over the Boiceville Trestle, repairable by already allocated FEMA funds.
  • Contrast this alternative with the widely publicized Rail Trail (Trail only on the railroad Right of Way) all the way from Kingston to Highmount, comprising 38 miles at perhaps $700,000 per mile, or nearly $30 million, plus twenty years to complete.
  • Whatever quite modest gains to the regional economy the NY-NJ Trail Conference study claims for a Rail Trail: 140,000 hikers, $3 million, and just 44 jobs, the railroad operating with trail over the same route at a quarter of the expense will dwarf these figures manifold.


The threat we face is losing a tangible link to our region's history, a resource for ALL. The plan to rip up the rails to raise some cash has no support from the general populace. Ulster County’s legislators bear significant responsibility to intervene, as they actually hold the railbed lease. What about the concerns of the train enthusiasts, the historical associations, and the people of the Catskills?

The Ulster & Delaware Right of Way is the “most historically significant man-made feature in our county.” It is the only survivor from the five original railroads.  In the early 20th century, 27 trips a day and over 670,000 riders per year passed through Phoenicia Junction. Trains carrying vacationers impacted every phase of life in the Catskill Mountains and foothills.

The railroad might do so again in the near future. It ought to be on the historic register, rather than fighting for very life. Public policy seems fundamentally misguided here.

The resolution of the Rail vs. Trail combat should be a major topic for debate right now. For the moment, CMRR has stopped in court the County Executive’s efforts to revoke its lease before 2016. It is time to expand the arena of action to include the interests of the entire population, outside the floodlit center ring where the two titans have been battling.

I am game to serve as a catalyst and contact person in forming together with other confederates, a region-wide Mission Impossible team to achieve Rail with Trail from Kingston to Highmount.

David Lionel, Video producer and editor