Thursday May 3, 2012

LENOX -- The recent breakdown of negotiations between the Housatonic Railroad Co. and the Berkshire Scenic Railway to continue scenic railroad excursions between Lenox and Stockbridge has drawn fire from state officials.

Responding to inquiries from The Eagle, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation placed blame for the impasse on Housatonic Railroad, while citing the value it has placed on "the public-private relationship" it has had with the privately owned freight line headquartered in Canaan, Conn., and owned by John Hanlon of Sheffield.

In a statement re leased by DOT's press secretary, Sara Lavoie, the agency cited letters it has written to support Housatonic Railroad's effort to win a $23 million grant to spur development of proposed passenger service be tween Pittsfield and Danbury, Conn., with a link to the Metro North commuter line in Brewster, N.Y.

The project, estimated to cost around $200 million, has been derailed so far for lack of available public and private sector funding.


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The DOT statement expressed support for the "nonprofit work of the Berkshire Scenic [Railway] group and recognizes [the scenic railway rides] as a significant tourist asset for the region."

Last year, the scenic line hosted 16,000 passengers on its May to December tours, reflecting steady growth in the appeal of the attraction. But the line is in limbo this season; its agreement to use Housatonic Railroad's tracks for its rides expired Dec. 31.

Colin Pease, a Housatonic Railroad vice president, has told The Eagle that the line does not intend to renew the agreement now or in the future. No specific reason was given.

But Housatonic Railroad officials have spoken privately of alleged safety violations by Berkshire Scenic Railway.

The state agency shot that notion down, declaring that "no evidence of safety violations with the Berkshire Scenic's operation has been presented to us. We are disappointed that we have been unable to reach an agreement."

Two years ago, Housatonic Railroad extended an expired seven-year accord with Berk shire Scenic after the state kicked in $3 million for track upgrades and related improvements.

Berkshire Scenic, through its attorney and volunteer Pamela R. Green, declared that "since we began operating over the Housatonic Railroad's tracks in 2003, no one from the line has ever inspected, asked to inspect or questioned Berk shire Scenic's safety or regulatory compliance. It never asked for records or any other paperwork."

But last August, Green said, the railway museum based in Lenox Dale received an email claiming that a Housatonic Railroad employee "heard something wrong" with a locomotive wheel. The wheel was inspected, no issue was discovered, and Berkshire Scenic responded with that information, Green said.

A letter from Housatonic Railroad followed, Green added, "alleging all of our equipment was defective." She stated the freight line conducted its own inspection, carried out by John Hanlon, "without notice or cause, according to multiple sources."

Green said that Hanlon's visit was followed by a letter from Housatonic Railroad's lawyer, alleging serious violations.

"We were quite stunned to receive the letter because after so many years of cooperative work with the Housa tonic [Railroad], it seemed unwarranted and a draconian act to take," she said.

According to a document from the Federal Railroad Administration, which oversees all lines, Berkshire Scenic got a clean bill of safety -- no derailments, equipment failures or personnel injuries.

"We had one injury in 2008, the only one in our history of carrying thousands of people -- one of our passengers sprained a previously injured ankle while getting off a coach in Stockbridge," Green stated.

According to the documents, Housatonic Railroad filed a complaint against Berkshire Scenic; a resulting inspection on Aug. 12, 2011, uncovered no violations, only minor suggested repairs to two locomotives that involved no violations.

Despite the impasse, Green emphasized, "we have always maintained our professionalism and willingness to work with them. Our organization, while volunteer-staffed, consists of not just railroad ‘buffs' but career, professional railroaders with just as much, if not more, experience than many of those working for the Housatonic [Railroad]."

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

At a glance

n Berkshire Scenic Railway began operating on the Housatonic Railroad tracks in 2003.

n Two years ago, Housatonic Railroad extended an expired 7-year deal with the railway after the state contributed $3 million for upgrades.

n Last year, about 16,000 passengers rode on the tours from May through December.