HADDAM — Eighty years after passenger service ended on the Valley Railroad, a new study is reviving the debate over what to do with the 9-mile stretch of unused track running along the Connecticut River between Haddam and Middletown.
The feasibility study, by the Conway School of Landscape Design in Conway, Mass., envisions a hiking and biking trail winding along the west bank of the river where steam locomotives used to rumble.
The rails-to-trails proposal is supported by a number of Haddam residents who say a hiking path would allow greater access to the river and boost tourism.
But the historic Essex Steam Trains, which leases the 22-mile Valley Railroad right of way from the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, wants the rail line maintained for its excursion trains and possibly future passenger service.
Essex Steam Trains has been moving steadily northward in recent years, restoring 13 miles of track from Old Saybrook to north of Goodspeed Landing, in Haddam's Tylerville section.
"It's kind of down the middle in terms of what people want [for the old rail line]," said Jeremy DeCarli, a planner with the 17-member Lower Connecticut River Council of Governments, which commissioned the scenic corridor trail study. "The meetings we held demonstrated a lot of interest in rails-to-trails, but there are some who think the track should be restored for passenger, light rail or even freight service."
The council of governments commissioned the rails-to-trails study to look at options for constructing a hiking and biking path along the river from Eagle Landing in Haddam to the Pratt & Whitney pier in the Maromas section of Middletown. The nine-mile section, now overgrown with trees, has been largely abandoned since freight service ended in the late 1960s, when the state acquired the 22-mile right-of-way from Penn Central.
In 1971, a revived Valley Railroad Company, which operates Essex Steam Trains, signed a long-term agreement with the state to lease what is now a 136-acre linear park for its excursion trains.
The Conway scenic corridor study presents three options for a rails-to-trails path, including tearing up the existing track and building a new cinder or asphalt trail on top, constructing a trail alongside the old railbed, or burying the track. Option one was considered the most feasible. Project costs ranged $5 million to $31 million, according the study.
Valley Railroad President Bob Bell said that while he appreciates the work that went into the rails-to-trails study, the company doesn't want the old track on the Haddam to Middletown stretch removed.
"We have been restoring more track each year as resources allow, and our intention is to continue with that," Bell said. "We have a long-term lease with DEEP, and we think we've been good stewards of the property."
Haddam architect Liz Bazazi, of Bazazi Design, a staunch supporter of the rails-to-trails proposal, said restoring the rail line for passenger or freight doesn't make sense.
"I'm a proponent of rail, but these days you would never build a railroad on the river. There are just better places," Bazazi said.
Bazazi, an avid outdoorswoman who has often hiked the Maromas section of the Valley Railroad, said in her opinion, nothing of the existing track could be salvaged.
"I would be cost-prohibitive to restore the line there," she said. A hiking path, similar to East Hampton's Air Line Trail, could be developed at a very reasonable cost, she said.
The council of governments has engaged Boston-based HDR Engineering Inc. to do another study on the feasibility of bringing back passenger trains and freight service on the Valley Railroad.
"At this point we have not taken a position on what is the best way to go," DeCarli said. "We recognize that the Essex Steam Train is a real asset so we don't want to do anything that would affect them. We also want to respond to interests of residents."
The original Valley Railroad was chartered in 1868 and in 1871 began passenger and freight service on the 44-mile route between Hartford and Old Saybrook. Passengers were treated to breathtaking views as the train rumbled across marshes and meadows, crossing a mile-long trestle bridge over Saybrook's South Cove out to Fenwick Point.
Passenger service on the railroad ended in 1933 while freight trains continued to operate until 1968.
The full Scenic Corridor Trail Study called be viewed at: http://issuu.com/conwaydesign/docs/vrr-state-park-scenic-corridor-stud/30Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun