NORTH CREEK - As Warren County officials probed methods of abandoning the county-funded railroad project, the contracted rail operator - Upper Hudson River Railroad Inc., which officials have routinely criticized - was defended this week by its manager.
Upper Hudson General Manager Cliff Wellz contended that his company has diligently fulfilled their contractual obligations and that the contract with Warren County all but destroys any profit-making potential.
"I just don't believe that people have seen what is going on here," Wellz said. "We are obligated to make at-least five runs per week to Riverside Station and back, from the first week of July to the first week of September, which we have faithfully done."
Wellz said that UHRR is responsible for all track maintenance, as well as maintenance of buildings and energy bills.
"We spend up to $100,000 a year just taking care of everything," Wellz said.
According to Wellz, approximately 125,000 people have ridden the train over the last five years. And although a "snow train" or a North Creek-Saratoga line may be doomed, the summer tourist train is a reliable contributor to the local economy.
"Odds are that about 9,000 riders of Thomas
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alone stayed at least one night in an area hotel," he said, referring to the railway's annual Thomas the Tank Engine special events. "I figure that accounts for about 2,800 room nights over the last five years - we are definitely bringing revenue to the region."
Over the last several years, Warren County has spent approximately $2.8 million - $429,000 from the local taxpayers - to construct railroad platforms in Stony Creek, Thurman and Luzerne. Upper Hudson announced last month it doesn't intend to stop at the three new platforms and that the county had not fulfilled their contractual obligation to build stations.
"The idea for us to run to Hadley and back once a week is ridiculous," he said. "We plan on making special trips south of Riparius, but going to Thurman with only 30 people on-board would financially destroy us."
Frustration among taxpayers and supervisors has intensified recently as costs and setbacks have multiplied. Such expenses include a washout last month which rendered the track south of Riparius impassable, requiring more than $100,000 in repairs.
The only part of the train operation that regularly turns a profit is the gift shop at the North Creek Depot, Wellz said. The original plans for the other stations called for similar shops and amenities, but after numerous cost-cutting revisions to plans, the final stations ended up being merely very expensive pole barns.
"I think the paring down we are doing now will allow us to at least break even, if not potentially turn a profit this year," Wellz said. "Upper Hudson is very much a viable enterprise."
The 16-year tourist train project has cost approximately $12 million, most of which came from state and federal grants.