Would another company take over Saratoga-North Creek tourist train?

Warren County supervisors ponder that as Iowa Pacific says it’s done

A Saratoga & North Creek Railway locomotive is seen in September 2017 in North Creek. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

Tourist trains may not be dead on Warren County’s rail line after all.

While Saratoga & North Creek Railway ran what the company says was its last tourist train on Saturday, Warren County leaders said they have heard from a representative of another railroad that is interested in excursion train operations on the county-owned line.

Horicon town Supervisor Matt Simpson said he was contacted by a person in the railroad business who said numerous other railroad operators would be interested in running trains on the county line.

He would not identify the representative but said the idea would likely be discussed with members of the county Board of Supervisors in the coming weeks.

The interest comes as Warren County seeks to extricate itself from a five-year contract with SNCR after claiming the company breached its end of the deal by making late revenue payments and failing to run the required number of trains. The head of SNCR’s parent company, Iowa Pacific Holdings, told county supervisors last month he was shutting the railroad down unless someone offered him $5 million for the northern Sanford Lake Line, to the north of Warren County’s line.

Simpson said there likely would not be a lot of interest on the county board for a company to run tourist trains, as it doesn’t seem that they can bring in enough revenue to support themselves. Maintenance of the rail line alone costs about $300,000 a year, Simpson said. SNCR has paid all of the costs of running the railroad since taking over operations in 2011.

“I don’t know if it will ever be economically viable,” he said.

Simpson said county leaders won’t entertain any other offers regarding the rail line until it has settled its issues with SNCR.

“The first thing we need to do now is figure out our contract now and worry about the rest of it later,” he said.

Saratoga & North Creek Railway manager Justin Gonyo said Monday that no more passenger trains were scheduled. He said the company plans to start moving tanker cars that had been stored on the Sanford Lake line out of the region next week.

Many are pushing for the rail line to be turned into a recreational trail, pointing to the success of the Warren County Bikeway and many other trails around the country that were once rail lines. But the county’s options will be limited as long as the Sanford Lake rail line is still in operation.

Warren County’s line, and the town of Corinth’s section to the south in Saratoga County, are the only way to and from the line in northern Warren and Essex counties, as they connect to a CP Rail line in Saratoga Springs. So the municipalities cannot “landlock” SNCR by taking out their rail lines.

The state has petitioned the Surface Transportation Board to decertify SNCR’s operation of the northern line, arguing the company has not hauled significant stone from Tahawus and not allowed snowmobiling as it had pledged.