Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Berkshire Scenic Railways Clears Key Hurdle, Christmas Rides Uncertain

(SOURCE: Berkshire Eagle - Adam Shanks)

NORTH ADAMS — A federal green light has raised hopes that the Berkshire Scenic Railway's Hoosac Valley Service could be up and running before Christmas. 

A decision issued by the Surface Transportation Board last week should allow the Massachusetts Department of Transportation to acquire the 4.6 miles of railroad between Adams and downtown North Adams from privately owned rail company PanAm Southern.

Scenic Railway operators and state and local officials are working feverishly to close the deal before the holidays, a prime time for theme rides that could attract customers.

In a Facebook post on Sunday, the Hoosac Valley Service stated that, despite the federal ruling, PanAm and MassDOT still must close on the sale.

"We remain hopeful this can be accomplished before the weekend of Dec. 19, but at this time we are not able to offer Christmas trains," the post stated. "If that should change, we will immediately announce a schedule."

The state is purchasing the stretch of railroad, which had exclusively been used for freight, to allow the Stockbridge-based Berkshire Scenic Railway Museum to run its Hoosac Valley Service scenic train rides between Adams and North Adams.

Unveiled in 2013, the Hoosac Valley Service is expected to draw thousands of train enthusiasts, tourists, and locals to take a slow ride between neighboring towns in the Berkshire Scenic Railway's restored rail cars.

The proposed agreement between PanAm and MassDOT provides the private company with an easement for continued use of the rails, and the planned weekend Scenic Railway rides would not conflict with ongoing freight transportation.

MassDOT first applied for approval of the transaction with PanAm on Aug. 14, according to the decision by the Surface Transportation Board, which oversees railroad sales in the United States. However, MassDOT later filed a motion to dismiss that application, claiming that the board's approval was not actually necessary because MassDOT "would acquire neither the right nor the ability to provide railroad common carrier service over the railroad assets, and it would be contractually precluded from interfering with [PanAm's] operations."

In its decision, the Surface Transportation Board agreed with MassDOT, stating that the transaction did not require its approval.

Initially, the train will operate between American Legion Drive in North Adams and Renfrew Street in Adams. The state also has plans to extend the rail further, less than one mile, from Renfrew Street to a newly constructed Adams Station on Hoosac Street in Adams.

The state-backed project got off to a well-received, but temporary, start over Columbus Day weekend thanks to a one-time agreement for use of the railway. Since then, the railway has been waiting for a permanent agreement to begin rides again.

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