Thursday, March 20, 2014

Today's Train of Thought- Springtime Is Near-Lee Here, March 20th 2014

Today's train of thought takes us to the hills of western Massachusetts and the busy-yet-picturesque Housatonic Railroad.

The hills of Berkshire County generally get more snow accumulation than the valleys, forests and open terrain further east- although this winter, much of New England got shellacked by old man winter regardless of elevation. Still, while places in the New York or Boston metropolitan area may only get a light dusting, this translates into more snow for ski resorts and bucolic state parks in the far west corner of Massachusetts [even if Mother Nature or old man winter can't provide the white stuff in a timely manner, the resorts are often equipped with snowmaking equipment for the slopes- NANESB!].

Neglected and split in two by indifferent class one railroads, the former New York, New Haven & Hartford's Canaan running track between Danbury, CT and Pittsfield, MA runs through the heart of this territory sought out by skiers and snow-shoers in the wintertime. Since dieselization, the New Haven provided both freight and passenger service on the line with Alco RS3s and self-propelled Budd RDCs. However, by 1969 the bankrupt New Haven's assets were purchased by the Penn Central- the ill-fated merger between the New York Central and Pennsylvania Railroad that would give way to Conrail in early 1976. The Canaan running track was one of many branchlines Conrail wasn't interested in, since two years prior the middle section between Boardman Bridge and New Milford, CT was abandoned and not included in the formation of Conrail. By 1982, the stretch just south of the Connecticut state line in Canaan and the Conrail interchange at Pittsfield, MA was purchased by the Boston & Maine. However, within two years the B&M would become part of Guilford and the line was still considered a fairly insignificant backwater and prime candidate for abandonment.

But in 1983, a company revived the name of New Haven predecessor Housatonic Railway and began operating nearly 30 miles of the abandoned ex-New Haven track that wasn't included in Conrail. By 1992, the Housatonic had purchased the Canaan running track from Guilford and was able to interchange with Conrail's former Boston & Albany mainline in Pittsfield, MA.

Both carloadings and speed limits were low in the early years as the Housatonic operated with a hand-me-down SW switcher, a GP9 and a rebuilt RS3. Traffic north of Canaan usually consisted of plastic products from Beckton Dickinson in Canaan and paper products from the Mead-Westvaco paper plant in Lee, MA. Throughout the 1990s, improvements were made to the tracks that allowed the Housatonic to operate longer trains with bigger power in the form of five rebuilt former Pennsy GP35s between Danbury and Pittsfield.

Here- contributor Ryan Parent catches Housatonic GP35M #3604 busting through a snowbank behind the old Hurlbut paper mill in Lee, MA in March 2008 with symbol freight NX-13x [a revival of New Haven-era train symbols- NANESB!]. Besides the plastic pellets, and paper traffic, the Housatonic has also been kept busy hauling lumber, propane, trash, limestone, construction debris and even the occasional carnival train.

The Housatonic is also fairly unique in that it is one of the few revenue freight carriers in the USA that is seriously looking into reviving passenger service- the only way into and out of some of these ski areas in the Berkshires from Connecticut and New York's suburbs is usually a narrow and winding US Route 7. Passenger service along the Canaan running track would save a lot of hassle and treacherous wintertime driving for a number of visitors.

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