Commentary & Opinion
12:38 pm
Sun July 21, 2013

David Nightingale: Rails-With-Trails

The last train into the Catskills left Kingston in September 1976, returning a few days later with essentially every freight car that had been on that Ulster & Delaware line.

Then, in 1979, the taxpayers of Ulster County bought the 38 miles between Kingston and Belleayre, to preserve it for future use, for $1.5 million 1979 dollars (or roughly 4 million in today's $$s).

 Fast forward to 2013. There is now a competition concerning the future of the rail: many people wish the lines to be torn up, for another hiking trail, while others wish it to be a kept as a historic tourist-usable rail line.[Ref.2.]

We do so much love competition – us or them – win or lose, hardly ever a compromise. As a longtime cyclist, walker and erstwhile volunteer garbage collector on our local railtrail, I can see compromise for the Catskill line – and I looked up some examples and photographs from about 16 states.[Ref.1.] Typically, the photographs show a single rail track, with a parallel biking and walking trail perhaps 20 feet away, sometimes with a fence between them, and sometimes separated by vegetation, or nothing. They all looked attractive, sensible and workable.

The Green Bay Trail in Illinois, and the Western Maryland Scenic RailRoad in Maryland are examples of sharing rail with trail. There are also the Santa Fe Southern Railway in New Mexico, and the Calumet Trail in Indiana. The Rail Road Trail in Michigan goes for about 57 miles beside a train track. At the other end of the scale, there's a 0.4 mile section of the Libba Cotton bike path in NC beside a train track. Astonishingly, the Southwest Corridor Park Trail in Massachusetts runs beside150 mph trains.

Could the historic rail into the Catskills which, as we said, the taxpayers own, and which is presently leased to the Catskill Mountain Rail Road volunteers and enthusiasts, ever become both? One is reminded of the long distancewalker Payson Weston, many times hiking beside rail tracks, especially in California.

So, not easy to decide.

Indeed, sitting on a slow-moving hard-seated cold historic train may seem boring to those who prefer walking through fresh woods or bicycling quietly on a cindery path, but what of the senior citizen, or parent with children, or summer group, wishing to get out to the Ashokan Reservoir, without battling traffic? One can imagine the train leaving the Hudson River at Kingston, passing through the city, chugging over the flats and Rte 209, passing through woods and climbing slowly to views of the Ashokan Reservoir, perhaps to let people out for a picnic? Or, if time, continuing to climb right up to the entrance to Belleayre ski area? Perhaps three trains a day? And the tired cyclist able perhaps to return that way if desired?

Thus, does it really have to be either/or? I submit that the hiking trail could be completed first, while work continues on the rail, as has been done successfully with other sections of the line. Let's seriously consider getting the best of both tourist worlds, long-term.

Refs:     1. Rails to Trails Conservancy and the National Parks Service.

       2. Kingston Freeman – various articles during 2013.

Dr. David Nightingale is Professor Emeritus of Physics at the State University of New York at New Paltz, and is the co-author of the text,  A Short Course in General Relativity.

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