The Housatonic, the Little Railroad That Could, and Did – New York Times

By Randall Beach

Feb. 10, 1991

A version of this article appears in print on Feb. 10, 1991, Section 12CN, Page 1 of the National edition with the headline: The Housatonic, the Little Railroad That Could, and Did.

NINE years ago, John Hanlon Jr. heard about an overgrown, abandoned railroad line from New Milford to Canaan. With an entrepreneur’s vision, he imagined the tracks cleared and trains again bringing passengers and freight from northwest Connecticut to Manhattan.

“It just seemed like a good thing to do,” said Mr. Hanlon, a custom-car designer. “This is an efficient form of transportation. I figured that sooner or later, it would come back.”

And it has. In a time of soaring gasoline prices and congested highways, Americans are rediscovering railroads, and Mr. Hanlon’s Housatonic Railroad Company, based in Canaan, is already profitable, he said.

Since he formed the company in 1983, he has restored those 35 miles of track, transported tens of thousands of enchanted tourists on scenic weekend runs from Canaan to Cornwall Bridge and reinstituted freight service for two companies in Canaan, Becton Dickinson, the medical supply company, and the Pfizer limestone quarry. The Interstate Commerce Commission recently approved Mr. Hanlon’s bid to purchase 36 miles of track from Canaan to Pittsfield, Mass., that was formerly owned by Guilford Transportation Industries.

Mr. Hanlon said he hopes to buy Conrail’s track from New Milford to Danbury. His ultimate goal, he said, is passenger service seven days a week from Pittsfield to Danbury, with a link to Metro-North trains to Manhattan. If he is successful, it will be the first time since 1971 that residents of the northwest hills of Connecticut, including Litchfield County, will be able to ride a train to New York.

The Housatonic Railroad Company is a resolutely little outfit, despite its grand plans. The 35-year-old Mr. Hanlon, a former Fairfield resident who now lives in Sheffield, Mass., said he does not concern himself with corporate amenities. He dresses in work boots and blue jeans, and his office is an unmarked trailer next to an old gasoline station, which he has also taken over.

The company has 13 full-time employees. Mr. Hanlon or Peter Lynch, the company’s vice president, answer the telephone themselves.

“We’re a small bunch of people trying to do a big job,” Mr. Hanlon said. “One of our mottoes is, ‘Don’t talk about it, just do it.’

“Everybody today is so busy analyzing, evaluating, studying and reviewing that they forget the job at hand. We eliminated all that. If we have a problem, we go out and work on it and fix it.”

Residents along the Housatonic line who have been hearing rumblings about restored train service are impatiently awaiting full commuter service, Mr. Hanlon said. When people ask when service to Manhattan will begin, he said he answers, “We’re working on it.”

Meanwhile, tourists can get a preview of the line on weekends between Memorial Day and the end of October, when the company runs excursion trains from Canaan to Cornwall Bridge and back, a total of 34 miles. Last year, the demand was so great that some would-be riders were turned away.

In 1986, United States Representative Nancy L. Johnson, a Republican from New Britain whose district includes some of the area served by the Housatonic line, helped Mr. Hanlon secure a $1.2 million Federal grant, supplemented by $350,000 from the State Department of Transportation. He used the money to restore the tracks. In Massachusetts, a similar grant for $1.6 million will pay for most of the track restoration to Pittsfield.

Mrs. Johnson said she is encouraged by the many commercial benefits that the Housatonic Railroad can bring to northwest Connecticut.

“Those towns need light industry to help the tax base and provide jobs,” she said. “The railroad allows small manufacturers to get their products to market.

“Environmentally, large highways are very costly and take a lot of land. I see this company as a model. This kind of regrowth of certain small railroad lines will be a part of the answer in the future where there is reduced pollution and increased conservation.” Mr. Hanlon said Connecticut has another successful model: the Shore Line East, the daily commuter service from Old Saybrook to New Haven, which began last May and has been luring thousands of people out of their cars and off Interstate 95. The line “was a trailblazer for us,” Mr. Hanlon said. “It shows that if you provide a service, you’ll get ridership.”

But commuter rail lines must always be heavily subsidized, said James Byrnes Jr., who heads the state’s public transporartion bureau. “There is no money to be made in commuter runs,” he said. “The Shore Line East is successful getting people on board, but it’s not making money.”

Mr. Byrnes said, however, that he is impressed with the performance of the Housatonic Railroad, which he sees as part of a national trend. “Where larger railroad companies could not make it, the smaller ones have,” he said. “The Housatonic and the Connecticut Central in Middletown, which deals with freight only, are very customer oriented. They react very quickly to customers’ wishes. And they don’t have a lot of overhead.”

Another small Connecticut Railroad is the Valley Railroad Company of Essex, which has popular tourist runs.

Mr. Lynch said he agrees with Mr. Byrnes’s assessment that there is no money to be made by running commuter trains, adding: “The question is this: is it better use of public funds to put them into railroads or highways? Highways don’t make any money either. We see commuter service as a possibility, but it will have to have support from state or Federal grants.”

Business leaders are hoping the Housatonic line will aid the region’s economy. Michael Witte-Meredith, president of the Chamber of Commerce of northwest Connecticut, said: “We’re still the rural New England country setting. With trains running, this area will be able to accommodate people seeing more of the countryside. I know a number of people who would use that route.”

As they work to restore the line, Mr. Hanlon and Mr. Lynch have become experts on the history of the original Housatonic Railroad. “It started in Bridgeport in 1837,” said Mr. Lynch, a 27-year veteran with various railroads. “In 1840, it hit New Milford, and in 1841 it reached Canaan.”

Mr. Lynch, who is 45 years old and lives in Old Saybrook, noted that railroads began to falter after World War II, when automobiles took over. “This one was no different,” he said. “The last passenger train ran up here April 30, 1971. In 1972, freight service stopped.” ‘Some Tough Sledding’

The Housatonic line is “one of the most scenic railroads east of the Mississippi,” Mr. Lynch said. “It is spectacularly beautiful, especially in snow and fall foliage. If it is not saved for any other reason, that alone would be enough.”

But Mr. Hanlon said railroad sentiment is meaningless without a strong business sense. He said he works seven days a week, 12 to 16 hours a day, adding that when the company began, “we had some tough sledding.” He had to scramble to buy and restore old equipment, he said. When he decided to buy a brush-cutting machine, he had to drag it out of a swamp. The line now owns four diesel locomotives, 25 railroad cars and 25 pieces of maintenance equipment.

Mr. Hanlon said he must still contend with doubters. “People tell me the demographics of this area won’t support a railroad,” he said. “They forget the demographics of New York. More people are coming up here from New York than before.

“This line was successful for 75 years. It’s had a good test run.”

But not everybody is convinced that what once worked can be successful today.

“I don’t think it’ll ever be a paying proposition,” said Richard Dakin, First Selectman in Cornwall. He said many people who live near the tracks are upset by the company’s cutting of ornamental bushes on its right of way. ‘Enormous Buzz Saws’

William Covington of Cornwall, one such property owner, helped to form a group called Railwatch to express concern over the railroad’s practices. He said he objects to the amount of public money going to the line.”Now we know why Connecticut has a $2 billion deficit,” he said.

The railroad brings in “these gigantic machines that look like enormous buzz saws and chop all the hedges,” Mr. Covington said. “I lost hedges that had been there for 25 years.” He said residents are also concerned about the company’s spraying of herbicides to clear the area around the tracks.

Sylvia Wismar, Canaan’s Town Clerk, said most local residents welcomed the railroad.

“But some people who bought property along the track thought the railroad would never run again,” she said. “Now that it is going by, with freight, they’re upset. Some people want things bedroom quiet.”

Mr. Hanlon said his company’s opponents are “a few people who have an ax to grind.” He said that extensive brush cutting was necessary, because the track area had not been cleared for 17 years, but that no vegetation had been cut on any resident’s property.

“The brush has to be cleared for public safety,” he said. “It’s a good idea for our engineers to have a good line of sight.”

As for herbicide use, he said, “everything we’ve done is in strict compliance” with government guidelines.”

While taking a visitor on a tour of the track from Cornwall Bridge to Canaan, Mr. Hanlon recalled when the track was covered with brush and mud. Now his trains run through woodlands bordered by the swirling Housatonic River. Mr. Hanlon pointed out fresh evidence of beavers working on trees along the riverbank.

“There’s been railroad track here for 150 years, since well before the Civil War,” Mr. Hanlon said. “This is an old, efficient technology. When you look at the cost of energy today, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out there’s a long-term energy problem. If you have an inherently efficient system, you’ll be in good shape.”