Future of unused rail corridor still undetermined
By Tim Rowland
A recreational rail-bike company in North Creek hopes to purchase the long-dormant Tahawus railroad line to Newcomb and keep it open to freight services, according to a filing with the federal Surface Transportation Board.
If it comes to fruition, the plan would be a win for local governments that want to preserve the line, and a blow to the state and environmental groups that want to transform the corridor into a multi-use rail trail.
According to Tuesday’s filing, Revolution Rail said it has been in talks with SMS Rail, a New Jersey short-line railroad that operates in the northeast. “In the event that Revolution Rail is the successful bidder in the underlying bankruptcy proceeding and becomes the owner of the subject rail line, SMS will provide freight rail service,” the filing states.
Revolution Rail indicated in the filing that two ready customers exist on the line, Barton International and Mitchell Stone Products. “In these discussions, both shippers expressed interest in the restoration of freight rail service on the Line and encouraged Revolution Rail to buy it.”
Robert Harte, owner of Revolution Rail, said he believes his company would provide a viable conduit for serving both recreation and economic development in the central Adirondacks, and that he has good relationships with both the Town of Newcomb and with conservation interests.
Started in 2017, Revolution’s North Creek hub has gone from six to 16 rail bikes, and the company now has 38 employees and three other locations in New York, New Jersey and Colorado. Harte said North Creek has attracted tens of thousands of visitors of all ages.
“There’s a lot happening in Newcomb, and we’d love to partner with them,” he said. “We think we can create a lot of economic impact.” He said the rail bikes attract people of all ages and are a way to see the wilderness for people who could not otherwise be capable of backcountry hiking.
Ongoing debate around the line’s future
Revolution’s filing is the latest twist in a decade of intrigue surrounding the 30 miles of remote track that once carried titanium ore from Tahawus, a former mining town near the High Peaks. The line has seen scant use since the mine closed in the 1980s, but under federal law, the STB must declare the corridor officially abandoned before it can be put to another use.
Revolution Rail offered $700,000 for the Tahawus Line in what in bankruptcy parlance is known as a “stalking horse” bid — a baseline offer for company assets that serves as a minimum entry point for other bidders.
The bid was rejected by the STB in September, over concerns that Revolution Rail was not a legitimate freight carrier — a concern Revolution’s filing was meant to address.
Meantime, the Open Space Institute submitted its own $1.5 million bid for the corridor, with the intention of railbanking it for three years. Railbanking allows for recreational use, but preserves the track should the need arise.
Revolution Rail’s filing comes a week after the STB rejected a request to derail the state’s request for abandonment of the line.
The DEC asked the Federal Surface Transportation Board in 2018 to decommission the Tahawus Line, which became the subject of controversy after a past owner stored tanker cars along the banks of the Boreas and Opalescent rivers.
William Brandt Jr., the court-appointed trustee, asked the STB to dismiss the state petition. The STB demurred, writing “The Trustee’s pleading does not provide any new evidence about the need for common carrier freight service over the Line …”
Brandt had hinted there was interest in the line, but had offered no specifics, noted the DEC in arguing against dismissal of its abandonment petition. “(T)he Board should certainly not deny the Department’s application on the basis of the Trustee’s unsupported, unverifiable claims,” the DEC wrote in December.
In siding with the DEC, the Surface Transportation Board said its ultimate decision over abandonment would likely depend on what carriers step forward, if any. Without a buyer acceptable to the STB and bankruptcy court, the line would be sold at auction.
Other issues too would have to be sorted out, involving other governments, most notably Warren County, which owns the tracks south of the Tahawus Line. Warren County voted to begin its own abandonment proceedings in 2020, but was advised by the STB to wait until the Tahawus issue was settled.
Claudia Braymer, a Warren County Supervisor representing Glens Falls, said railroad interests have nibbled from time to time, but there has not been any sustained commercial success. She said OmniTRAX was the most recent carrier to openly kick the tires, but seemed to have concerns about the cost of refurbishing the tracks.