Sunday May 27, 2012

LENOX -- The trains are at the station, but for the first summer in a decade they won’t be leaving.

Berkshire Scenic Railway Museum opened for the season on Saturday without its popular tourist train excursions between Lenox Dale and Stockbridge -- the result of a failure to secure a new agreement with the track’s owners, Housatonic Railroad Co.

"It’s really difficult for us," said Rick Silva, Berkshire Scenic president. "It’s really sad."

Silva said opening day usually attracted around 150 people for the first ride of the day. But without that option, only about 10 people had shown up by midday.

"It’s usually exciting. We’re on a high on that first day," said Pam Green, a Berkshire Scenic representative. "But it’s very tempered today."

Last year 16,000 people took the nonprofit’s scenic ride, generating $450,000 in revenue. With $375,000 in expenses, the remaining profits were used to upgrade equipment and budget for a master plan that included expansion and demolition of an adjacent building. But without those funds, Silva said, plans have all been put on hold indefinitely.

The scenic line’s operating agreement with Housatonic Railroad expired in 2011 and the two sides were unable to reach a new deal despite the efforts of state and federal elected officials to find a compromise. Housatonic Railroad publicly cited safety concerns in its decision, though Berkshire Scenic representatives strongly deny they committed any serious safety infractions.

This is the second time the museum has been in this position. The nonprofit’s agreement with the previous rail line owner expired in 1989 and it wasn’t until Housatonic Railroad took ownership that rides started again in 2003. Silva said museum membership dwindled the last time the rides ceased, and he holds little hope that Housatonic Railroad will ever allow them to use those tracks again.

Berkshire Scenic is still operating its station museum and Gilded Age exhibit, but organizers are looking for ways to make up for the loss of the scenic line by coordinating new special events, expanding exhibits and working with the Department of Conservation and Recreation to improve access to the adjacent Woods Pond and October Mountain.

They are also offering a "jitney" ride, where a locomotive and coach car will travel down the museum’s several hundred feet of track to a a rail yard where volunteers will explain how railroads used to work.

Jay Green, a Berkshire Scenic volunteer, said the concern now is providing an experience that is good enough to bring people back.

"We’re still going to be here, but we just afraid it’s not going to be the same draw it was," said Green.

To reach Trevor Jones:
tjones@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6214.
Follow him on Twitter: @BE_TrevorJones.