2017-11-30 / Around Town

Riding the Rails…Again

By James Merolla

Jay Primiano off-loaded a 35-foot sailboat mast to Brendon Donahue who worked in tandem with other able-bodied volunteers to get the mast from the Old Colony Railroad’s flatbed car to a nearby marine shop. The locomotive traversed the seven-mile stretch from the Melville Shipyard to the north end of Newport in just 25 minutes. The engine, which is actually privately owned by rail enthusiast John Pratt, was allowed to make the trip with permission from Newport & Narragansett Bay Railroad owner Eric Moffet. (Photos by Lynne Tungett) Jay Primiano off-loaded a 35-foot sailboat mast to Brendon Donahue who worked in tandem with other able-bodied volunteers to get the mast from the Old Colony Railroad’s flatbed car to a nearby marine shop. The locomotive traversed the seven-mile stretch from the Melville Shipyard to the north end of Newport in just 25 minutes. The engine, which is actually privately owned by rail enthusiast John Pratt, was allowed to make the trip with permission from Newport & Narragansett Bay Railroad owner Eric Moffet. (Photos by Lynne Tungett) On Tuesday, John Pratt, an Old Colony Railroad volunteer, and Bob Willhauck of Newport & Narragansett Bay Railroad, drove Pratt’s locomotive in the first commercial transport of cargo by rail on the island’s scenic tracks since Ronald Reagan occupied the White House.

The cargo consisted of two masts, one 45 feet in length, the other 35 feet, owned by Rick Best, a Newport management consultant, nautical hobbyist and former auto mechanic.

Eric Moffett, owner of the Newport & Narragansett Bay Railroad and a variety of dinner trains on Aquidneck Island that he purchased in November 2014, was helping Best avoid highway traffic by offering an engine and his railway to haul the masts, which needed to be moved the seven miles from the Melville Shipyard in Portsmouth to the Pell off-ramp in the north end of Newport.

“This is the first time that freight has been transported on the rails since the mid-80s,” said Mike Leckie, a nine-year volunteer with the Old Colony Railroad.

Leckie said it was a pleasure helping with the train on the Tuesday haul of ship parts, since Old Colony hasn’t been able to run for around three years because the cars and equipment had gotten too old.

He is not the only one who dreamed of the rust being shaken off the carrier system.

Moffett, who runs a railyard at Quonset Point in Davisville, in addition to leasing his rails to other enterprises that carry tourists to sightsee the shore, envisions a day when people may go by rail off island to Tiverton, Fall River, and beyond.

But commercial use of trains, beyond this one isolated mast haul to rebuild a friend’s boat, is not likely on the island. “[We are] isolated at this time on the island, so commercial use is very limited as we only have a flat car to move products around,” Moffett said.

“We’d be very interested in moving other products this way on a limited basis, but we see no real potential at this time.”

Massachusetts is rebuilding the line from Fall River to the Rhode Island state line in Tiverton to increase commercial business on their state-owned rail lines in Fall River. This state line, Moffett said, directly connects to the Newport Rail line, making commercial opportunities available in Tiverton, and if a bridge were reconstructed, offering the potential to expand commercial rail into Newport.

“If, at some point, the [former] bridge at the Sakonnet River were ever to be re-installed, there could be a potential to move commercial products back on this line,” he said.

Moving people, though, is a greater possibility.

“For the next five years, the potential we… envision for the line is the tourist aspect and to create a park-and-ride shuttle service while the Pell Bridge ramps are being realigned,” Moffett said.

“If a shuttle is developed and can be proved successful, we may see a longer-term opportunity to develop rail as a means to take cars out of downtown Newport, utilizing the rail network.”

There will be more activity along the tracks in the coming months with the construction of a $1 million, 1.7-mile segment of bike path along the existing rail corridor from the Newport Visitor Center to the CCRI campus through a special state bond.

And Rail Explorers, to which Best is a chief advisor, is another way for people to experience the tracks. The foot-pedaled car ride attraction saw significant success with riders last summer, upon its launch of the Rhode Island division, over the Newport & Narragansett Bay Railroad ties. Rail Explorers, Best said, saw some 23,000 tourists ride its self-propelled cars during its first season, exceeding the company’s 20,000-passenger goal.

with contributions by NTW staff

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