Gaining momentum, Berkshire Scenic Railway to extend service, add car
That was the assessment of Jay R. Green, president and general superintendent of the Berkshire Scenic Railway Museum, after tallying its first full season of riding the rails in North Berkshire.
Since its launch last April, the railway carried 9,600 passengers on its new 8-mile round trip Hoosac Valley Service along the Hoosic River, Green said.
The weekly rides in the summer were solidly booked but rarely sold out, Green said, and the special event excursions in the fall and the holiday rides in December were filled to capacity.
"We weren't sure what it was going to be like," he said "So we were pleasantly surprised, to say the least."
The nonprofit, all-volunteer Berkshire Scenic Railway uses a restored 1950s-era train to give folks the feel of a train ride and a look at parts of the countryside rarely seen.
Buoyed by the success of the first season, the crew has purchased a second Budd Rail Diesel Car to expand its capacity to carry passengers, especially during the popular fall and holiday events. And by this fall, the state will have extended scenic rail a mile south to the Adams Station on Hoosac Street, where the town will build a new passenger platform over the summer.
"Since 2013 we've been working very hard on this," said Donna Cesan, community development director in Adams. "So we're just really excited that this is coming to completion."
North Adams Mayor Richard Alcombright echoed those sentiments.
"I am both pleased and greatly encouraged to see these numbers," he said. "And with the completion of rail into downtown Adams coming this year, I am certain the numbers will grow exponentially. I thank all involved who have made this cultural and economic development dream a true reality."
Berkshire Scenic Railway Museum first offered rides out of Lee from 1984 through 1989, when it lost the use of the tracks. In 2003, with the help of local elected officials, the group began offering scenic rides between Lenox and Stockbridge, attracting more than 100,000 passengers per season.
But after nine successful seasons and with plans in the works for a dinner train, the organization was forced off the tracks again in 2011.
This time, the organization turned its attention to North County, where it partnered with state legislators, the state Department of Transportation, and the communities of North Adams and Adams to acquire easements, purchase the rail line, apply for state funding, design the track and purchase materials.
The 2016 season launched in April with two sold out charter trains by the Massachusetts Bay Railroad Enthusiasts, and Memorial Day weekend marked the start of regularly scheduled train rides every weekend though the end of October. Additional, special event trains were offered throughout the season including "Cabaret Trains," featuring popular local musicians Samantha Talora and Ron Ramsay, and four consecutive sold out "Legends of the Hoosac Valley" trains in October. The new, exclusively themed Christmas train ride for the Berkshires, "The Tinseliner," sold out for all four weekends of operation.
Overall the nonprofit's season came out with the roughly $90,000 annual budget in the black, Green said.
Green said the strong ridership figures prompted them to seek out another car to add passenger capacity. They found one at a closed railroad museum in Rhode Island.
"With a second Rail Diesel Car in the fleet, it gives us the option of either running a two-car train or an entirely separate train," he said. "Although the RDC is appealing to BSRM from a historical perspective, even 60 years later, the Budd design and RDC operations model is still relevant from a business standpoint."
Berkshire Scenic representatives wound up at the Old Colony & Fall River Railroad Museum in Fall River, when they learned a 1953 New Haven Railroad Budd Rail Diesel Car No. 42, named the Firestone, needed a new home. Coincidentally, that very car once operated on the Berkshire Line between Pittsfield and Danbury, Conn. in the 1950s and '60s.
But the Firestone, named by the New Haven Railroad after one of the railroad largest freight customers, needs a second engine and a drive shaft.
"Our mechanical department volunteers, under the leadership and talent of Vice President and Chief Mechanical Officer Tom Delasco, have become very comfortable with the RDC's systems and components," Green said. "Between BSRM's mechanical abilities and the preservation and restoration investments already made by the Old Colony volunteers, No. 42 is a perfect candidate for operational restoration."
He said they hope to have the Firestone in Berkshire County, and up and running for the foliage season, although a lot depends on haw many volunteer hours they can put in, how long it takes to find a drive shaft, and how much the repairs will cost.
Meanwhile, armed with a MassWorks grant of $2.6 million, MassDOT will soon start work extending the rail south, along the same path of a former train line that had been there since the 1860s, to terminate at the Adams Station, which the town built last year in anticipation of the return of train service.
At the same time, the town will contract out the construction of the passenger platform, which has already been designed.
Green expects it all to be completed and in use by Columbus Day.
"It will give both towns something to be really proud of," he said.
Reach staff writer Scott Stafford at 413-496-6301.
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