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Cape Cod Rail

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Is Cape's scenic railroad chugging into the sunset?

Court documents suggest the tourist train's investors are burdened by losses.

By FREDERICK MELO

STAFF WRITER

When a Cape Cod Central Railroad train rolled through the West Barnstable train station on a recent Sunday, Albert Pisani was there to greet it with a handwritten sign demanding action.

The message was simple: Bring back rail service.

Harkening back to the days trains routinely crisscrossed the peninsula, Pisani hopes someday to see the scenic train expand into a full-blown, year-round passenger service, clicking and clacking from Cape Cod to Boston or other metropolitan points west.

To cynics, however, Pisani has an impossible dream. The perennial question appears to be, will the seasonal tourist train really be back next year?

Launched in 1999 under the direction of then-president John Kennedy (not that John Kennedy), Cape Cod Central Railroad quickly received accolades in the press for its two-hour scenic trips and nighttime dinner trains.

USA Today soon dubbed the round-trip ride from the Hyannis station to the Cape Cod Canal one of the country's "top 10 train experiences."

But not even Kennedy's enthusiasm and advocacy for the return of rail service could mask the company's fiscal pain.

Kennedy, a former Amtrak engineer, parted ways with Cape Cod Central Railroad a year ago to explore a career in real estate and transportation consulting. His departure caught many rail enthusiasts off guard.

It soon became apparent the company was on shaky financial ground and a deep split between its major investors - entrepreneur Phil Doherty and a West Barnstable physician, Dr. Timothy Biliouris - had left its continued operation in doubt.

"The railroad has not been the investment we hoped it would be," Doherty told the Times last year from his office at Cape Cod Textile in Sandwich. "It's just not profitable. I don't know any other way to say it."

Clues in divorce papers

Capping off the 2003 season, the last excursion train of the year is scheduled for tomorrow, New Year's Eve.

In a brief interview, Cape Cod Central Railroad president Scott Himstead expressed confidence the train would roll out of the station again in April, when the season is scheduled to resume.

But legal documents underscore just how strained and tenuous is the investors' relationship, drawing a dark cloud over the future of the entire company.

In a legal filing this year, Biliouris, acting as a divorce plaintiff against his wife, Mary, a substitute schoolteacher, noted the railroad had been a drain on his resources "of at least $50,000 for 2002."

The court documents also stated "it is likely that the business will generate a similar loss in 2003 if it is not placed into bankruptcy or otherwise liquidates sooner."

"Moreover, the court finds that the relationship between the plaintiff and his business partner is strained and that it is unlikely that the business will continue to operate throughout 2003 and that it is likely that the only way to avoid further losses is to sell the business if a buyer can be located."

Divorce judgments handed down by Probate Justice Robert E. Terry in April and September granted Biliouris the right to "retain his ownership interest in the Cape Cod Railroad."

A year earlier, his wife, Mary, had filed a motion attempting to bar him from "investing any more money in Cape Cod Railroad" without her written consent, or the consent of the court.

Neither Biliouris nor Doherty could be reached for comment. The company's financial picture for 2003 is unclear.

Public subsidy in question

Meanwhile, the railroad is negotiating with the state to renew its five-year lease agreement for access to the state-owned tracks.

In 1998, when Cape Cod Central Railroad Inc. acquired the license to operate on about 38 miles of tracks, the company agreed to pay $10,148 a year for three years to use them. In the past two years of the five-year deal, the fee increased to $12,072.

The contract was supposed to expire Dec. 21, but the state has given the company until early January to iron out unfinished details, according to John Carlisle, a spokesman for the state Executive Office of Transportation and Construction.

"We have had contact with Cape Cod Central Railroad regarding the operating agreement, and we've agreed to extend the lease ... while we finalize the language," Carlisle said.

Carlisle, who would not comment on the specifics of the proposed lease, downplayed the source of the delay.

"There is none," Carlisle said. "We just wanted to finalize some things that they brought up. Sometimes these things take longer than expected."

Carlisle said he expected the new lease to be ready by about Jan. 5.

The governor's office, however, has not jumped to support widespread rail services across the state.

While the state has made overtures toward restoring the Greenbush commuter rail line - which ran along the South Shore from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s - Gov. Romney has made it a point to emphasize there are few funds available to subsidize new rail services.

And without public subsidy, commuter service would be difficult to launch, according to rail advocates.

Future uncertain

Meanwhile, even longtime rail enthusiasts refused to speculate whether the financially troubled tourist train will run again.

"I wish I had a better idea, but I really have no idea," said Kennedy, who maintains he has not been in contact with either of the company's two owners since leaving Cape Cod Central Railroad a year ago.

"I hope they do, because I think it's a great attraction, and I think it's good for the Cape," he said.

Bernard Reagan, senior manager with Bay Colony Railroad, said he was unaware of any changes in his company's operating agreement with Cape Cod Central Railroad.

Bay Colony maintains a master lease with the state for use of the state-owned tracks.

The company also provides Cape Cod Central Railroad with track maintenance, dispatching and federally mandated inspections, as well as access to the track, according to Reagan.

RAILROAD IN THE RED

The Cape Cod Central Railroad was launched in 1999, offering what USA Today called one of the "top 10 train experiences."

The railroad's first president, John Kennedy, left last year to pursue a real estate career.

Current major investors Phil Doherty and Timothy Biliouris have expressed disappointment in the venture's profitability.

In a divorce filing this year, Biliouris said the business had been a drain on his resources and would likely continue to be "if it is not placed into bankruptcy or otherwise liquidates sooner."

From The Cape Cod Times

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I've never riden the Cape Cod train. Anyone here actually done it? Is it worth it?

Tourist trains are a tough business.

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A friend of mine used to work on it. She was a waitress on the dinner train. She said it was always packed and people seemed to love it. The demographics of the people on the train skew a bit old.

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I love trains, but people going to the cape want to bring all kinds of camping/beachy stuff so the train would not work perfectly for many. The local public transit on the cape is not too great either, so that's a problem.

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Certainly for people coming for the week or the month, the train and buses (such as they are) are not a great option. That's why we need the flyover as well. But there are many weekenders and daytrippers who shy away from the Cape because of the traffic woes, for them, good mass transit could be just the thing. Look at the popularity of the Downeaster service to Maine.

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It would be hard to get a third bridge over the Canal for funding issues, especially one for rail. Would I like to see the T be extended to Hyannis? Sure, why not? However, it'll be remarkably tough.

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Service to at least Wareham has been in planning for a while.

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It would be hard to get a third bridge over the Canal for funding issues, especially one for rail. Would I like to see the T be extended to Hyannis? Sure, why not? However, it'll be remarkably tough.

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There is a third bridge, a rail bridge. It provided passenger service in the past, it can do so again, especially since it was just refurbished. There is a station in Buzzards Bay on the mainland side of the bridge already. Tracks on the Cape side would likely need upgrading and there are a lot of grade crossings on the Cape side. I don't think they could all be separated, a new rail line along Route 6 would probably be cheaper, but service could run along existing tracks with minimal upgrades. Amtrak service from Hyannis to NYC ran as recently as the late 80s.

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Currently the Army Corp does not charge any fee to lower the bridge (there is no fee for ship traffic in the Canal either), but the rail operator, Bay Colony, does charge other operators a fee for sending one of their employees to the bridge to lower it. In a weird vortex of government inefficiency, Bay Colony gets reimbursed by the Army Corps for providing this service. :unsure:

The time should not be an issue, if the train is on schedule, the bridge should be ready when the train gets there, I'm sure there is a spot where the train passes, the bridge starts going down. Rail has the right-of-way so it should not have to wait for shipping. The headways are not limitless of course, at some point there would be too much time when the bridge was down. But it should be able to handle a pretty good schedule without impacting shipping.

In 1947 the bridge was lowered an average of 12 times per day.

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Oh yes, forgot about the rail drawbridge. Doesn't seem like a good idea for heavy use, but once or twice a day yes.

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