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Friday, February 3, 2012

12-02-04 PHOTOS: Saratoga and North Creek Ski Train

One of the rising stars in the East Coast tourist train scene is the Saratoga and North Creek railroad, operating between Saratoga Springs and North Creek, New York. A division of shortline and heritage line operator Iowa Pacific Holdings, the S&NC runs over the former D&H Branch Line to Tahawus and operates with a D&H theme. The S&NC operates out of the Saratoga Springs transportation center and connects directly with Amtrak's Rutland service trains as well as the Adirondack. The line is no short out and back, instead running some 50 miles between Saratoga and its terminus, yard and shoppe complex at North Creek and at current speeds the trip takes about two hours. The line sells itself on the amazing scenery of the upper Hudson River and also impeccable food service at prices that are a pretty good deal for even non-mobile restaurants.

What is perhaps more surprising is that the S&NC is not some mom and pop operation It is a fully regulated passenger carrier and it makes use of Iowa Pacific's 24/7 nationwide reservation call center. Equipment consists of two ex-Alaska Railroad Great Dome cars which hold the food service facilities and provide head end power for the train and a number of former Budd built stainless steel long distance passenger cars that were previously used by MARC in commuter service. Motive power for the line consists of either a GE B39-8 or an old EMD BL2, which was one of the units recently excessed by the Bangor and Arrostook railroad when it went bankrupt.

Having opened in the 2011 summer season, the S&NC has been making money hand over fist with very innovative ideas that cater to the Adirondack tourist crowds, especially families. During the peak fall leaf season they were selling out 7 or 8 car trains for an entire weekend and during the lead up to Christmas they licensed the Polar Express property and set up their own Polar Express with a large set built out on a field and a large cast of local actors to play the roles both on the train and on the "North Pole". Again the trains sold out and they were even seeing thousands of riders per day on weekdays all through December. The manager told me that when they did a Day Out with Thomas they actually lost money compared to their usual operations (due to the hefty fees involved and because the S&NC relies less on voulenteers), but felt they needed to do it to spread word of their operation, which appears to have worked.

So, during the deep winter months the S&NC has partnered with the State of New York to offer a Ski-Train package in conjunction with the state owned Gore Mountain resort. The combination train ticket/lift ticket only costs about $12 more than the regular lift ticket itself and includes two free drink tickets which makes the S&NC Ski Train service a real no brainer. A shuttle bus provides transportation too and from the mountain and the train is a wonderful way to relax and have a bite to eat before and after a long day on the slopes. This season, due to the lack of snow, patronage was rather light, but they are expecting larger crowds next year, weather permitting.

You can find the S&NC photos at the top of this larger photo set here.

So normally the S&NC prefers to operate its more aesthetically pleasing BL2 #52, but it was sidelined with mechanical issues in the yard.

This put the onus on their more homely GE B39-8 freight hauler #8524 to get the train out and back successfully.

Front view of #8524 with the engineer.

The North Creek station is pretty typical for a tourist line, but also features ADA compliant high level platforms. Here we see the station with one of the Budd built ex-MARC commuter coaches.

Even the shuttle bus that takes one to the mountain is painted in a D&H scheme. In the fall the road has a similar deal going with Gore Mountain's canopy tours with the combined package only costing about $5 more than the normal tour price.

The Alaska Railroad heritage of their Great Domes is still evident. It's amazing how versatile those cars are providing a first class sight seeing experience, food service and head end power. Ironically the former Alaska cars were not winterized, causing all sorts of problems when it first got cold that winter. If one wonders how cars from Alaska can be laid low by Upstate New York weather one must realize that in Alaska they were only operated during the summer tourist season and then drained if liquids for the winter. 

While I was surprised to find the MARC coaches that had disappeared from the Brunswick Yard between 2010 and 2011 in another case of what was once lost is now found former Staten Island Rail Road Also S-1 #821 is also on their property.

The crew was really cool, actively encouraging passengers to take pictures out the open vestibule half doors...for at least as long as one could stand the bone chilling temperatures. 

Here is a short video taken from the side window as the train arrives in North Creek.

Longer side-window video as the train runs along the ice bound upper Hudson. Speed on the route is only about 30 mph, but with all the money rolling in they hope to upgrade it to 40mph or more operation in the near future. Also there are plans to restore the track 20-40 miles beyond North Creek to the former mine at Tahawus which would not only provide even better scenery for riders, but also cater to Adirondack park visitors, hikers and boaters.

Here we have a video walkthrough of the train starting with the car after the dome car. The high pitch noise at the beginning is the HEP generator in the Dome. The first car was a former Amtrak Long Distance lounge car complete with an authentic 1980's Am-bathroom. The final car is a MARC coach where the skis were stored.

In this final video we look out through the darkness as a member of the crew unsets the derail to allow passage of the train onto the former D&H (now Canadian Pacific) main line at CPC-38. Note the very bright Searchlight signals with a Medium Approach Indication at CPC-38 and then a Restricting at CPC-37 into the unsignaled station tracks at Saratoga Springs. A re-signaling project by CP will provide a power operated derail at CPC-38, eliminating the need for the derail stop, however it will also eliminate the searchlights which I was lucky to have captured here in HD.

In one final photo we have #8524 in the darkness at Startoga Springs after discharging the Ski Train passengers. The train departs around 7am and arrives back around 7pm getting one to the mountain before 10 and getting one off the mountain by 5.

Anyway if you couldn't tell I had a great time on this trip and I highly recommend the Ski Train if you happen to be staying in the Capitol Region. The S&NC provides great value for money and is a very high quality operation. Hopefully Iowa Pacific will be able to work its magic elsewhere, including plans to attach sleepers and dining cars to existing Amtrak equipment to then offer a private first class service competitive with Amtrak's prices.

Next time a special post devoted entirely to the surviving New York Central electrics sitting in a woods south of Albany.

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