Monday May 7, 2012

LENOX -- Behind-the-scenes efforts are likely to continue through U.S. Rep .John. W. Olver's office to resolve the impasse between the Housa tonic Railroad Co. and the Berkshire Scenic Railway Museum that has scuttled tourist train excursions between Lenox, Lee and Stockbridge for this summer.

"I always have hope," said state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, on Sun day. But he acknowledged that both sides are far apart after they traded accusations this past week about alleged safety violations by the scenic line, which has been using about seven miles of the privately owned Housatonic freight line's tracks under an easement granted to the state Department of Transportation that expired Dec. 31.

Efforts by Pignatelli and state Sen. Benjamin Downing, D-Pittsfield, to bring the two sides together have failed thus far. But Housatonic owner John Hanlon, during an interview with The Eagle on Thursday, left the door slightly ajar, declining to completely rule out a settlement when he cautioned: "There's an awful lot here to be considered first."

Hanlon maintained that, based on inspection records, there has been an ongoing "systemic failure" involving safety, posing "huge" liability concerns for his Housatonic line. Berkshire Scenic's counsel and spokesperson Pamela R. Green called those claims "completely, totally false." She also noted that the scenic line carries a $3 million line of liability insurance.


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Green cited documents from the Federal Railroad Ad ministration, which regulates and oversees rail safety, that listed only a minor maintenance issue last August, as well as Berkshire Scenic's own detailed inspection reports.

The state DOT stated last week that "no evidence of continuing safety violations with Berkshire Scenic's operation has been presented to us."

Meanwhile, local government officials and business leaders are voicing support. During a meeting of the town's Marketing and Events Com mittee in Lenox Dale, Green outlined plans to expand the museum's on-site activities at the train station museum.

"We're here for the long run, we've been here for 28 years and we're not going anywhere," Green told the group. But, she acknowledged, the demise of scenic train rides "does dampen our ability to draw in tourism to the area and it is going to have an impact on the town."

A tri-town fundraiser for the museum was proposed by Ralph Petillo, executive director of the Lenox Chamber of Commerce. Other suggestions included an organized petition drive directed at Gov. Deval Patrick and efforts to attract national media coverage.

"I don't want us to shoot ourselves in the foot by going negative," Green emphasized.

Berkshire Scenic also an nounced that it is exploring a potential public-private partnership with the state's De partment of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) to create "an attractive gateway" for the publicly-owned recreation areas and the museum. which is adjacent to Woods Pond and October Mountain State Forest.

The main goal of the project is to improve visibility and physical access to the area by demolishing the "bland industrial building blocking the view of October Mountain," according to Green. The 16,500-acre preserve is the largest state forest in Massachusetts.

The industrial complex, currently headquarters of Daley Trucking until the firm relocates to Lee within the next few months, was purchased by Berkshire Scenic in 2010. The non-profit has been awarded a $100,000 Community Pres ervation grant toward demolition of the building, but it is raising funds to pay off the remaining $345,000 mortgage on the $550,000 building purchase.

The Lenox train station has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 2003.

"The full architectural beauty of the station can't be appreciated," stated Berkshire Scen ic curator Jack Trowill. "Lenox Station is an important part of Lenox's history and deserves to be displayed in full view with the natural beauty of October Mountain and Woods Pond behind it -- just as it was during the height of rail travel to the Berkshires" during the Gilded Age from the late 1860s to 1896.

Details of the museum's proposed public-private partnership with the state are pending, with no funding designated thus far, but the DCR is backing the project, Green said.

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