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In the Bronx, Test-Driving a Plan to Open Railroad Tracks to the Public


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In the Bronx, Test-Driving a Plan to Open Railroad Tracks to the Public

By WINNIE HUJAN. 2, 2015

The three-minute ride was just long enough to give a taste of what could be.

The old rail car with the fancy name — the Bronxstack Continental — roared through the Harlem River Yard, an industrial site in the South Bronx. The open-air car carried passengers bundled in winter jackets and scarves, as it shuttled back and forth through a landscape of steel bridges, rough-hewn buildings and chain-link fencing topped with barbed wire.

Anthony Ramirez II, a co-founder of Mainland Media, which operates the Bronx Beer Hall on Arthur Avenue, held on as the Bronxstack Continental, a small work car known as a speeder, lurched forward after hitting a bump. “My experience with trains has really been the subway, and this is way more exciting,” he said.

Mr. Ramirez is part of a group of Bronx residents, train enthusiasts, historians and others who want to bring such rides to the borough and New York City as a way to repurpose stretches of little-used or abandoned railroad tracks for recreational use. They envision opening the tracks to everyone with their own rail car, or access to one, which, like the transformation of the old Manhattan freight line into the High Line park, could potentially draw tourists and dollars to an economically struggling neighborhood.

“The closest you can come to this is the monorail at the Bronx Zoo,” said Ed Garcia Conde, the founder and editor of Welcome2theBronx, a borough-focused blog, adding that he would like to see rail car rides incorporated into redevelopment efforts for the South Bronx waterfront. “This is a beautiful example of what could happen here. Just imagine this green instead of concrete.”

But such ambitions remain just that for now, largely because of the myriad logistical, safety and financial issues involved in adapting rail lines for more widespread use. Freight rail remains a tiny but growing part of the New York region’s overall transportation system. The total volume of freight shipments is expected to rise to 15.1 million tons by 2040, from 10.2 million tons in 2007, according to the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council, a regional organization charged with transportation planning.

William Goetz, a vice president of CSX Transportation, one of the nation’s largest freight railroad companies, said that most tracks are actively used, and that running a personal rail car on them would require approval from the rail owners as well as careful planning and coordination to avoid any accidents. “Railroad tracks are not a place for anyone to go uninvited,” he said. “The movement of equipment on an operating railroad is heavily regulated. It’s not like a city street where you can get a driver’s license.”

Still, Mr. Goetz did not rule out the possibility of allowing the Bronxstack Continental on CSX tracks. “We’ll take it one step at a time,” said Mr. Goetz, who was on hand recently to observe the car’s test run at the Harlem River Yard. “It’s not something we’d normally do. Safety is the critical thing.”

The rail-car group was organized by Justin Fornal, 37, who is known to fans as the culinary adventurer Baron Ambrosia, the host of several media projects devoted to the Bronx and its food. In 2011, Mr. Fornal and his father, John, bought a used rail car for $3,500 from a retired railroad worker in Monroe, N.Y. They parked it at the elder Mr. Fornal’s home in Killingworth, Conn., where they overhauled it, renamed it and painted it light purple, his son’s signature color.

The younger Mr. Fornal said he was working on a plan to take the Bronxstack Continental public next spring, running it on tracks around the city while picking up and dropping off passengers. Eventually, he said, he hoped to make a cross-country trip to build support for what he saw as an urban take on a pastime in which people buy speeders — compact, motorized rail cars usually used for maintenance — to ride on tracks in mostly rural areas.

Tony Riccio, a senior vice president of Harlem River Yard Ventures, a private development company that leases the rail yard from New York State, said he received a call from Mr. Fornal asking permission to use the tracks. “He had this idea, which was crazy,” Mr. Riccio recalled. “Why would someone say he would want to go from the East Coast to the West Coast on abandoned rail lines? That’s not exactly sanity.”

Still, Mr. Riccio agreed to open the yard to Mr. Fornal and the rest of the group for test runs last month and was one of the first to climb aboard. It was a smoother ride than he expected, he said.

The rail car, powered by a four-cylinder gas-burning engine, was christened with a bottle of sparkling birch sap wine and toasted by more than three dozen people. Then Mr. Fornal, dressed for the occasion in pinstripe overalls and an engineer’s cap, called out “all aboard” for the first ride.

“It’s like a toy train but bigger,” said James Sexton, 48, an architectural historian from New Rochelle, N.Y., who compared the excursion to cruising in a convertible.

But Mr. Sexton said he would not be getting a rail car of his own.

“I’m going to bum rides with Baron,” he said. “I don’t think my wife would be happy if I parked a speeder in the driveway.”

A version of this article appears in print on January 4, 2015, on page MB1 of the New York edition with the headline: Riding the Bronx Rails.

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The yard is old and many people can see it from the 3 Avenue Bridge and there is no space for anything there. The area is good, but the idea would have been better on the AMTRAK track near the Bruncker Expressway.

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