At a recent event in Saratoga announcing the Dec. 30 startup of ‘Snow Train’ service to North Creek, Mike Bowers of barVino in North Creek (left) talks about how the Saratoga-North Creek Railway has revitalized tourism and commerce in his town. Ed Ellis of the railway (right) said the rail line to Tahawus was likely to open in 2012 as he talked about how rail service to North Creek has far exceeded expectations to date.
As the Saratoga-North Creek Railway officials announced their Dec. 30 startup of their much-anticipated Snow Train service, they said their rail ridership this summer and fall -- their first five months of operation -- has far exceeded their expectations.
At a media event Dec. 8, the CEO of the railway also said his firm would soon be re-opening a 30-mile stretch of rail line from North Creek to Tahawus, with intentions to transport mine tailings.
Ed Ellis, president of Iowa Pacific Holdings — owner of the Saratoga-North Creek Railway — said that ridership has been far higher than their projections of about 40,000 passenger trips, and may total 60,000 by the end of the month.
“It’s been a great startup,” he said.
Beginning Dec. 30, the railroad will be operating “snow trains” on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through March from Saratoga to North Creek, he said. The railway may also add additional runs during weekdays as needed to coincide with special events, he added.
While the popularity of passenger service from Saratoga to North Creek this summer was a welcome to surprise to local officials, the railway’s ridership is likely to be well-received this winter, as winter sports enthusiasts take advantage of the railway’s $70 ski package.
This discounted deal includes lift ticket at Gore Mountain, round-trip transportation, shuttle service to Gore, and two drinks on the train, as well as free relaxation and stunning scenery during the excursion — all for less than an $80 Gore lift ticket alone, Ellis said.
The snow trains— named as such because there’s also tubing, skating, shopping and entertainment available in North Creek — will leave the Saratoga station at 7 a.m. and return at 6:20 p.m.
“This is not just a ski train — people can get on the train in Saratoga, have a breakfast made to order on the train, enjoy the scenery as they travel to north Creek, then take advantage of the many fun activities all winter long — instead of sitting at home,” Ellis said.
Looking ahead, Ellis said the railway was expecting to open the line to Tahawus in 2012, with the intention of hauling mine tailings to be used as aggregate for highway construction. He said that five million tons of tailings, or rock material leftover from mining, was available. Much of the tailings are crushed granite from Barton Mines.
He also said that the mines in Tahawus and elsewhere on the rail line contain magnetite, titanium and rare earth elements, that are likely to experience increasing demand in upcoming years.
Ellis predicted that fuel costs would be increasing to $6 per gallon or higher, and rail transportation of such materials would be ever more competitive, as well as cut down on truck traffic on Warren County roads.
Area economic development officials have said they have had confidential discussions with Iowa Pacific officials over their freight plans — and they have been publicly enthusiastic about prospects for job development due to Iowa Pacific’s aggressive approach to revive rail service.
Also, amateur geologists have estimated that hundreds of millions of dollars worth of minerals could be mined in the area served by the Tahawus rail line.
Ellis said at the Saratoga press conference that the Saratoga-North Creek Railway passenger traffic has been boosted in recent weeks by its smash-hit Polar Express runs out of Saratoga Springs.
“It’s been wildly successful,” he said.
The holiday-themed excursions, named after the Polar Express book and movie, includes waiters dancing down the train’s aisles, a trip to the “North Pole,” — a trackside village created in a rural area by a set design firm — as well as plenty of holiday music, and a visit by Santa aboard the train.
The Polar Express trips have often filled all the 800 available seats, swamped the Saratoga station beyond its capacity, and required shuttling passengers in from a remote parking lot. The Polar Express trips are offered nearly daily through Dec. 8, with 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. departures. Reservations are available at: www.sncrr.com.
Ellis also said the railway was ready to establish additional connections to the Rensselaer rail station — and launch commuter service to Albany if it could be arranged with appropriate subsidies.
“The demand is there,” Ellis said. “We want to take people off area roads.”
Mike Bowers of barVino in North Creek said the rail has revitalized commerce in North Creek, noting that the Copperfield inn had served up to 500 meals per week this summer, rather than several dozen.
“It’s been like an adrenaline rush,” Bowers said. “There’s real synergy between the railway and downtown businesses.”