Wednesday April 25, 2012

LENOX -- The signal lights are flashing red for the Berkshire Scenic Railway Museum, which has reached the end of the line for its three-season, 90-minute rides between Lenox and Stockbridge that attracted about 16,000 patrons last year.

But the all-volunteer, nonprofit organization staffed by railroad buffs has a "plan B" to keep operating the museum and even offer rides in locomotive cabs on the yard tracks it owns at the Lenox station.

Housatonic Railroad Co., which runs freight trains on the line it owns between Danbury, Conn., and Pittsfield, has declined to renew its operating agreement with Berkshire Scenic without explanation. According to Housatonic's vice president for special projects, Colin Pease, the decision is final.

Berkshire Scenic had been running trains on a two-year extension of an operating agreement through a seven-year easement granted to the State Department of Transportation by Housatonic in 2002 in exchange for $3 million in funding to maintain the tracks. The extension of the easement and the operating agreement expired on Dec. 31.

Pease, representing Housatonic's president, John Hanlon, who lives in Sheffield, stated that the company "has determined that continued operation by Berkshire Scenic Railway on Housatonic-owned track is no longer possible."

The Berkshire delegation -- led by state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, and state Sen. Benjamin Down ing, D-Pittsfield, along with U.S. Rep.


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John Olver, D-Amherst -- has been trying to mediate the dispute, but to no avail.

"We tried everything we could," Pignatelli said from Boston. "It's very unfortunate, a big loss for the Southern Berkshires. But Housatonic is a private company and there was nothing we could do about it. Ben [Downing] and I couldn't even get both parties to agree to meet in the same room at the same time."

Pignatelli emphasized that the dispute is not between the state and the freight line.

"The DOT has been supportive of Housatonic, provided they work out an agreement with Berkshire Scenic," Pignatelli added.

"I'm very disappointed, Berkshire Scenic was a fabulous amenity," he said. "But we can't force people to the table."

Housatonic had alleged that Berkshire Scenic had committed safety violations on the line, according to a person familiar with the impasse, a charge that the Lenox-based nonprofit has firmly denied.

But Kevin Chittenden of Pittsfield, the treasurer for Berkshire Scenic, said he has not heard of any safety violation allegations. He also maintained that the dispute is between the state and the Housatonic Railroad Co.

"We're willing to sit down together," Chittenden said. "We don't have that feeling that it will be ‘never again' for the train excursions. We have not been told."

Pease, the Housatonic executive, emphasized that the breakup with Berkshire Scenic is not connected to Housatonic's plans to seek $200 million in public and private financing to operate passenger service between Pittsfield and Danbury, connecting to the Metro North commuter line in Brewster, N.Y.

Pease said the company is awaiting a decision on a federal grant of $23 million that would be an important step forward toward putting together a financial package for the passenger service. The Berkshire Regional Planning Commission applied for the U.S. Department of Transportation grant on behalf of Housatonic, Pease said.

"We've been told by Housatonic that we should have no expectations of the agreement being renewed," said Pamela R. Green, an attorney for Parese, Savin, Smith and Gold's Pittsfield office. She represents Berkshire Scenic pro bono and also is special events manager and a ticket-taker for the railroad.

Her view is that "the logjam is between the Department of Transportation and Housatonic. What we've been told by the state is only that we have nothing to report."

She said the organization is "always hopeful," pointing out that a previous impasse forced a suspension of scenic train service between 1992 and 2002. The Berkshire Scenic Railway and Museum was founded in 1984 and for several years ran trains between Lee and Great Barrington.

Green said the line's riders -- 4,000 alone for its popular Polar Express runs in late November and early December -- have had a major economic impact on area tourism, since most of the patrons were from New York, eastern Massachusetts, nearly all 50 states, and two dozen foreign countries. Polar Express riders tended to be county residents.

Revenue for Berkshire Scenic last year was just below $450,000, Chittenden said, against expenses of $376,000. He said donations and ticket revenue came to $1.9 million from 2006 through 2011.

"Although the organization will change, it will never go away," Green said, citing plans to operate the museum and offer tours of the vintage equipment and exhibits.

"We have 300 yards worth of track, so we could give people cab rides in the locomotives," she said.

Green pointed out that Berkshire Scenic owns the Lenox station "free and clear."

The museum will reopen for the reason on Saturday, May 26, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Updates are available at berkshirescenicrailroad.org.

To contact Clarence Fanto:
cfanto@berkshireeagle.org,
or (413) 496-6247.
On Twitter: @BE_cfanto