Saratoga & North Creek Railway
Freight trains should be rolling along the Saratoga & North Creek (SNC) Railway tracks within the next two months, according to railroad officials.
It would be the first active freight train here in 23 years, said 28-year-old Justin Gonyo, a North Creek native who was hired in August as the railway’s general superintendent. He’s a fourth generation railroad worker; his father and grandfather worked on these tracks when the Delaware & Hudson (D&H) Railway owned them. Now it’s his turn. He feels the sense of history, and he’s glad to be a part of it.
“It’s really indescribable,” Gonyo said. “I don’t want to get corny or anything, but just to be part of the process of setting up the first shipment of freight down this line since 1989 is a pretty big achievement for me in my career.”
Gonyo’s railroad career is entering its fifth year, and thanks to his experience on the D&H and its parent company, the Canadian Pacific (CP) Railway, he’s ready to help the SNC’s parent company, Iowa Pacific Holdings, get some return on its investment. The company has already spent millions of dollars along the rail line since the summer of 2011, fixing tracks, setting up The Exchange at North Creek retail shop, and establishing passenger service and specialty trains between here and Saratoga Springs.
“I’m very happy to see their commitment to the overall well-being of the businesses in North Creek and the surrounding areas,” Gonyo said.
There’s a reason SNC General Manager Steve Torrico says “Freight is great.” That’s how the railway will make its money.
The Sanford Branch purchase alone cost $1.5 million. The SNC bought the 30-mile line between North Creek and the Tahawus mine from NL Industries (formerly known as National Lead Company). This is the railway’s road to riches, so to speak. It leads to North River, home of the Barton Mines garnet processing plant, and to the old titanium mine at Tahawus, where tailings and granite are ready to be shipped out of the Adirondacks and put to industrial use.
To show Barton executives a good-faith effort, the SNC ran an “inspection” train from North Creek to North River on Aug. 8. In late October, the railway ran the first train all the way to Tahawus since the last freight train rolled along these tracks on Nov. 17, 1989, according to Gonyo.
“The tracks do need some work, but overall they’re in pretty decent shape for sitting for 23 years,” Gonyo said. “We owe a lot of that credit to National Lead for keeping the line somewhat clear, keeping it from being totally consumed by nature.”
While it doesn’t own the rail line anymore, National Lead still owns the Tahawus mine, and most of the freight shipped out of there will be aggregates for construction.
“In the Adirondacks, we have almost unlimited access to high-friction granite, and because of the mining processes over the years, most of this stuff is broken down into a manageable size and laying on the ground and ready to be shipped,” Gonyo said.
High-friction granite is a hard rock used for road construction and rail bed construction. Due to its density, it has a lot of different industrial uses. The granite at Tahawus was “overburden” from the mining process.
“It’s the rock they had to remove to get to the orebeds,” Gonyo said. “It’s all sitting there ready to go. All it has to do is be scooped up and put in a rail car.”
There is currently a market for high-friction granite in the hurricane-ravaged sections of the Northeast.
“We’re working with some firms down in New York City to start hauling that high-friction granite down to the city to help with the rebuild efforts from Hurricane Sandy,” Gonyo said. “It’s an emergent need and we have just the type of rock that they need to rebuild down there.”
There are also about 100 million tons of Tahawus tailings, rock leftover from the ore-extraction process. And one of the SNC’s clients wishes to get the iron out of those tailings.
Iron mines were first established at Tahawus and the nearby village of Adirondac in the early 19th century, but there was an impurity in the orebed: ilmenite, which when processed becomes titanium dioxide. When the mine at Tahawus was re-established in 1942, the mining company was extracting ilmenite for titanium dioxide for use in industrial applications such as paint for World War II.
While National Lead processed ilmenite at the Tahawus mine, it also extracted magnetite (iron ore). Twenty percent of the tailings are magnetite.
“There’s a need for that and there’s a process in place to extract the other 20 percent of the iron,” Gonyo said.
There would be no processing at the National Lead mine; instead, the tailings will be shipped out to an ore-extraction processing facility elsewhere.
Barton Mines is also a customer and will soon be shipping garnet from its North River processing plant, making a 3,000-mile cross-country trip to a distribution facility in Kent, Wash., south of Seattle.
Since setting up shop in North Creek and Saratoga Springs in July 2011, the SNC has created between 30 and 75 jobs, including Gonyo’s. He wouldn’t have been able to return to his hometown and work for the railroad without Iowa Pacific’s investment.
“And with the growth of the freight, it will only create more,” Gonyo said. “Basically we’ll need more engineers and conductors. And we may also need more maintenance of way personnel. Those are the guys that work on the tracks.”
To start, Gonyo expects that there will be one crew taking freight between Tahawus and North Creek and another crew taking the freight from North Creek south to Saratoga Springs, where it will connect with the D&H. Freight trains going north of North Creek are only allowed to go a maximum of 10 mph. Between North Creek and Saratoga Springs, freight cars can run a maximum of 25 mph and passenger trains can travel a maximum of 30 mph.
The SNC is currently working on marketing efforts for its 2013 summer season. They will be re-creating the D&H’s Summer Paradise marketing campaign, creating packages for travelers that will include rail service, hospitality at places such as the Copperfield Inn, and family entertainment at attractions such as the Lake George Steamboat Company.
At one point, the D&H had owned the rail line between North Creek and Saratoga Springs, as well as the Lake George Steamboat Company. Visitors who want to take the train and a scenic boat ride on Lake George will be able to ride the train from Saratoga to Thurman, where they will be shuttled 12 miles to the Steamboat Company in downtown Lake George.
“Basically your vacation can start once you get on one of our trains,” Gonyo said.
The SNC is also establishing weekend passenger service in the off-season months of March, April and May.
“While we rely on tourist-based passenger trains, we want to show that we’re a year-round operation,” Gonyo said. “The SNC doesn’t close its doors between the end of the ski season and the summer. It doesn’t close its doors at the end of the summer and the beginning of the winter ... We want to see more trains.”
The SNC created daily runs from Saratoga Springs to North Creek this past summer, including several days of the week that tourists could take trains from New York City to North Creek in the same day. They could leave Penn Station on Amtrak in the morning and have dinner at the Copperfield in the evening.
“Iowa Pacific is eagerly looking to establish more of a foothold in the Northeast,” Gonyo said. “And with the SNC not even being two years old yet, we’ve already achieved some pretty significant points here on the Adirondack Branch. Every day, it’s pushing it forward, growing it more.”