By Justin Franz
KINGSTON, N.Y. — New York’s Catskill Mountain Railroad has renewed its lease on a section of former New York Central trackage for another year and officials are optimistic the struggles of 2020 will soon be behind them.
The Catskill Mountain Railroad has been running out of Kingston since the 1980s and presently operates on five miles of track. The lease on the track, which is owned by the local county, was set to expire on Dec. 31, 2020. However, shortly before the end of the year, the railroad signed a new year-long lease. President Ernie Hunt said the railroad hopes to sign a longer contract at the end of this year and expand its lease by another two miles to reach the trailhead of a recently-built rail trail west of Kingston.
The trail was built on a section of right-of-way that until a few years ago was also part of the Catskill Mountain’s operation but local officials thought would be better utilized as a walking and biking path. The railroad and county faced off in court over the decision to rip up more than 30 miles of track and for a few years, the tourist operation’s future looked uncertain. Hunt said that relations with Ulster County have improved in recent years. Now the railroad is embracing the trail and believes that it can work with trail-backers to create a regional attraction.
“We want to market the train and the trail as one great experience,” he said.
The Catskill Mountain was one of the few tourist railroads in the state to offer excursions last year, Hunt said. To do so, the railroad doubled its fleet of passenger-carrying flatcars so that passengers could practice social distancing and not be in the confined space of a passenger car. The railroad also operated more trains to try and make up capacity differences.
“We made enough money to survive 2020,” he said, “but we had to work a little harder for it.”
State-wide shutdowns and social distancing requirements put a dent in some of the railroad’s biggest events, including Polar Express and Easter excursions, which can bring up to three-quarters of the railroad’s annual ridership. However, the railroad actually hosted more passengers during the summer and fall than it did during the same time period last year. In 2020, the railroad carried about 13,000 people, down from about 41,000 the previous year. However, Hunt said the railroad covered all of its expenses and it’s already looking forward to a bigger 2021 season. Excursions are expected to start in April and go through the fall.