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Federal Board Rules On Ulster Rail Line

Rail tracks
Tipiac-Alain Caraco/Wikimedia Commons

An independent federal board has ruled in favor of Ulster County concerning the status of a rail corridor. The railway group that first filed the petition says the fight is not over.

In January, the non-profit Ulster & Delaware Railway Revitalization Corp. filed a petition with the Surface Transportation Board, asking whether Ulster County had the legal authority to begin removing an 11.5-mile rail portion near the Ashokan Reservoir of the nearly 39-mile rail corridor, known as the Catskill Mountain Branch. The railway group wanted the STB to determine whether the line had been abandoned. In a June 29 decision, the Board found the line was abandoned in 1977 and, therefore, not subject to the National Trails Act. Larry Roth is U&D Railway Revitalization Corp spokesman.

“Surface Transportation Board decision is being portrayed as a win for Ulster County but it’s not. It actually opens an entirely new can of worms,” Roth says. “Anyone who says the decision clears the way for the rail trail is categorically wrong.”

Ulster County has an approved policy that permits tourism railroad operations to continue in the City of Kingston and Mount Tremper/Phoenicia segments. It also allows previously unused segments of the rail corridor from Kingston to Highmount, home of Belleayre Ski Center, to be converted into a public recreational trail. Ulster County Executive Mike Hein speaks to the STB ruling.

“I always expect people to take whatever positions that they want on the back side of these kinds of decisions,” says Hein. “But what this STB clearly said is what the county has been doing has been not only legal but the rights steps to be able take towards a system that has fundamentally been abandoned.”

Roth contends that without being subject to the National Trails Act, the county cannot secure federal money for the rail’s construction. And, he says, the ruling leaves open the question of ownership. Roth believes that the easements that allowed rail operation will have reverted to the land owners whose land it crosses, and that these land owners can negotiate for new easements for the trail..

“So now everybody who has property on the rail corridor should be asking, do I own this now?” Roth says. “Is it mine again?”

Roth says his group is pursuing action in New York State Supreme Court to resolve related issues but takes the STB’s ruling as final.

“The STB decision opens the door to a lot of new legal challenges that had been kind of in a holding pattern until that decision came down,” says Roth. “So this is not over by any means.”

Hein says he just looks forward to bringing more of the segmented rail and trail policy to reality.

“I’m excited about what this really means, what it means to be able to balance the importance of  historic train operations, which we want desperately within our community, with incredible things like rail biking that’s an exciting opportunities that people have with Rail Explorers happening in our community as well in the Phoenicia area, in western Ulster County and, last but not least, with an important trail, a linear park, that will connect one of our poorest neighborhoods with low cost, high quality food and provide recreation for people not on our streets,” Hein says.

He says the Kingston linear park would connect midtown Kingston with uptown and Kingston Plaza, where there is a supermarket, and provide recreational park space in midtown. Meantime, Roth says his group wants to see the rail corridor preserved and restored. County officials have said that it would be impossible to re-establish rail operations along the entire 38-mile corridor because of decades of severe deterioration and damage.

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