Train wars: Kingston parks dump truck on railroad track

A City of Kingston dump truck blocks the Catskill Mountain Railroad tracks near the Washington Avenue intersection in Kingston. Photo taken Saturday, April 27; courtesy of the Catskill Mountain Railroad.

A City of Kingston dump truck recently appeared on the tracks of the Catskill Mountain Railroad (CMRR) in Kingston, blocking the railroad.

The bizarre standoff was the latest showdown in an ongoing battle over the future of the old Ulster and Delaware rail corridor -- with the railroad on one side, and Ulster County Executive Mike Hein and a group of local trail advocates on the other.

Last October, Hein unveiled a plan to put the Kingston end of the CMRR's line out of service, sell most of the county-owned railway tracks for scrap, and build a trail for walking and biking along the rail corridor. The city of Kingston has sided with Hein -- and come out swinging against the railroad.

On Friday, according to a story in the Daily Freeman, Kingston mayor Shayne Gallo sought and won an order from a State Supreme Court judge preventing the CMRR from moving two antique rail cars into Kingston from their current location near Route 209 in Ulster.

The railroad had planned to move them to Kingston for restoration.

Gallo argued that the cars were a public health hazard because they are covered with lead paint and other hazardous substances:

“The idea that they want to come into the city, sandblast these cars which are riddled with rust, lead and 15 years of pesticides is incredulous,” Gallo said. “It would present a public health problem for the residents and would put the people at risk.

“I am prepared to take all measures, including but not limited to, using city dump trucks to block the tracks,” the mayor said.

After the court order was granted, Gallo was as good as his word. A city dump truck was soon parked directly across the CMRR's tracks near the intersection with Washington Avenue.

CMRR chair Harry Jameson is furious about both the court order and the dump truck.

Jameson told the Watershed Post on Monday that he believes the dump truck is a violation of New York State law, which prohibits "unlawful interference with a railroad train."

"It's illegal to actively block a railroad right-of-way," he said. "We're looking at the mayor basically implementing a Class D felony."

The dump truck may belong to Kingston, but Ulster County had a hand in the latest strike against the railroad, Jameson said.

"Mike Hein's fingerprints are all over the restraining order. The Ulster County Health Department did the paint sample for the lead," he said.

Above: Before-and-after photos of a coach restored by the Catskill Mountain Railroad, similar to one of the two railroad cars parked near Route 209 that the railroad plans to restore. Photo courtesy of the CMRR.

In a press release issued Monday, Jameson blasted both the City of Kingston and Ulster County for strong-arming the railroad rather than opening the issue to public input.

In the release, Jameson called Ulster County "an outpost of Russia" and accused the city and county of "un-American, anti-business behavior." An excerpt:

Regardless of your position on rails or trails, this is no way to treat a small business in Kingston or Ulster County. The Ulster County Health Department, under the control of Mike Hein, provided material to assist the city in issuing the Temporary Restraining Order. Rather than having a truly open and reasonable discussion on rail vs. trail, they instead decide to stifle the debate by putting the CMRR out of business. Is this what Ulster County has come to? No wonder businesses and jobs have been leaving the county in droves.

Since Hein first announced his plan to convert most of the CMRR rail corridor into a walking trail last October, the issue has become a matter of fierce local controversy.

On one side is the CMRR, with a staunch crew of volunteer laborers and historical preservationists who want to preserve the railroad. On the other side is an equally dedicated group of trail advocates who want to open up the rail corridor to foot traffic.

Railroad supporters claim that rail and trail can coexist. But there are spots on the track -- notably, on New York City property near the Ashokan Reservoir -- where planners will have to choose between rail and trail.

A public hearing on Hein's trail proposal might have given each side a chance to hash out its case on the merits. But, as the Kingston Times' Hugh Reynolds noted in a recent column, Hein put revenue from the sale of miles of track in the county budget with little opportunity for public input:

Pity the option wasn’t publicly vetted before Hein revealed the plan in his budget presentation last October. In fact, the initiative apparently came as a surprise not only to the public but to advocates directly affected on both sides. Hein conferred neither with rail enthusiasts who hold a lease from the county on the 38 miles of rail right-of-way from Kingston to the county line, nor with the trail-blazers who under Hein’s proposal could wind up with almost 85 percent of the track.

Update: A CMRR fan left a message on the railroad's Facebook wall on Monday afternoon that the dump truck had just been removed:

Just witnessed Kingston City workmen remove the truck from the crossing at Washington Ave. :)

Update #2: The Freeman reports that the truck was indeed moved -- although city lawyer Andrew Zweben doesn't believe Kingston violated the law by putting it on the tracks:

Kingston Corporation Counsel Andrew Zweben said he doesn’t believe the state railroad law applies to the tracks used by the Catskill Mountain Railroad because it operates only a tourist train and only sporadically during the year. The law, he said, forbids blocking a railroad line with the intent to interrupt train service.

“The intent of the action was to protect the health and safety of the residents and visitors of the city of Kingston,” Zweben said.