The Crooked Lake Review

Fall 2005

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The Finger Lakes Railway

Still Chugs Along

After 166 years of Serving the Finger Lakes


Richard Palmer

For all too long,railroads have done everything possible to discourage the passenger business. In the 1950s and 1960s, before the advent of Amtrak, timetables became thinner and thinner until they disappeared altogether. A combination of factors caused this including the automobile, improved highways, and an unprogressive and indifferent railroad management.

But the Finger Lakes Scenic Railway, the passenger division of Finger Lakes Railway, is doing everything it can to lure people back to the rail travel. With gas prices steadily rising, they even foresee the time when regularly scheduled passenger service between Syracuse and Geneva, via Auburn, Seneca Falls and Waterloo, might actually become a reality.

System Map

But for now the railroad, which took over a group of branchlines from Conrail in 1995, is promoting excursion trains on assorted segments of the line. While many excursions over the past few years have been chartered by various groups, the railroad itself is sponsoring trips.

Promoting this is the job of events coordinator Deborah Murphy, who comes from a railroad family. Her husband, Kraig, is a conductor on the Finger Lakes Railway. His grandfather worked on the New York Central Railroad. "The response to our excursions has far exceeded our expectations," she said. Passenger excursions on the Finger Lakes Railway began in October, 2001, using locomotives and coaches repainted in the two-tone gray "lightning stripe" livery similar to the New York Central of the 1940s and 1950s. The coaches were purchased from VIA Rail of Canada.

Since then, more rolling stock has been added and numerous excursions have been held in conjunction with corporate meetings, dinner and wedding parties, birthdays, and special events such as Memorial Day in Waterloo. A dining car is being added. There are special holiday trains, and a new feature will be a wine tasting excursion from Geneva to Kendaia. Also coming up is a mystery trip called "Orient on the Murder Express." The railroad also plans to run excursions from Geneva to Solvay the first weekend in November in conjunction with the annual model train show.

But the Finger Lakes Railway's main business is hauling freight, which it has done well with for the first decade of its existence. The railroad is handling about 16,000 carloads annually, which had drifted downward to less than 5,000 a year under Conrail ownership. The new operator has lured customers back to the rails. In some cases, firms have decided to stay in various communities because of the excellent service provided by the railroad.

Companies served by Finger Lakes Railway include Solvay Paperboard, Guardian Industries, International Paper, Nucore Steel, Owens Brockway, Pactiv, Seneca Foods, Southern Container, Cargill Salt and Canandaigua Wine. Most of the rail line has been rejuvenated with new ties, welded rail, stone ballast and resurfacing / realignment.

But the management of the railroad also has a strong interest in improving the public image and perception of railroads by offering a wide array of passenger train excursions. All trips are reasonably priced. For further information call the 315-781-1234, or Deborah Murphy at 585-737-8647.

Fall foliage excursion passes through Waterloo

A Little History

The original segment was the Auburn & Syracuse which was opened between those two places in 1838. For more than a year, until locomotives were available, the line was operated by Col. John M. Sherwood of Auburn. For decades he had operated the local stagecoach lines. He entered into a contract to furnish horses to pull the trains until such time as locomotives could be procured. The first steam train operated in June, 1839.

The Auburn & Rochester Railroad was completed between those two points in 1841. The two railroads were consoldated in 1850 to form the Rochester & Syracuse Railroad Company, which in turn became a segment of the New York Central in 1853.

The Auburn Road was a busy rail line for more than a century, having been double track for many miles, and what remains continues to be very active under the management of the Geneva-based Finger Lakes Railway. The New York Central operated passenger trains on the line until May 18, 1958, which was followed by a long and steady decline.

It was abandoned Victor to Pittsford in 1960; Canandaigua to Victor in 1978, and Pittsford to Rochester in 1982. It was operated by Penn Central from 1967 to 1976 and by Conrail, April 1, 1976 to July 1, 1995, after being purchased by Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Ontario counties, and turned over to the Finger Lakes Railway, which began operation on July 23, 1995. The entire system includes 118 miles of trackage. Since initial startup the payroll has gone from six to 30 employees. It has 10 locomotives and is essentially a seven-day-a-week operation.

Trackage also incudes a 15-mile segment of Lehigh Valley mainline from Geneva to Kendaia. An isolated segment is the former Pennsylvania Sodus Bay line between Watkins Glen and Penn Yan. Norfolk Southern owns the former "Fall Brook" line between Geneva and Corning, while CSX owns the same line from Geneva to Lyons. Much of the success of the railroad goes to Michael Smith, the general manager, who spends much of his time generating new business.

As a sidelight, the City of Geneva has approved a proposal for construction of a new railway station with offices for the Finger Lakes Railway, along with a 60 to 70 room hotel and a public park between Exchange Street and Routes 5 and 20, and north of Canal street.

Illustrations provided by Finger Lakes Railway.
© 2005, Richard Palmer
Index to articles by Richard F. Palmer
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