The Little Railroad That Can!

Engine 2308 prepares to lead the Rail Shipper’s Special as it departs Auburn

Finger Lakes Railway is picking up steam

It’s been said that the best place to hide something is in plain sight. If that’s true, Finger Lakes Railway may be a prime example. The line is headquartered in Geneva, but surprisingly few folks seem to notice – which is odd, considering some of the tracks run through the center of town! But as a dyed-in-the-wool railroad nut, I not only noticed – I had to do some investigating for myself.

Maybe it’s a “guy thing,” but to me there’s something irresistible about trains. I’ll drive miles out of my way to snap a few decent photos of motive power. Trains are big, kinetic and make the most wonderful noises when in operation. Trust me, there’s nothing like the sound of wheel trucks clicking across rail joints. Growing up two miles from the New York Central Railroad’s “Water Level” route likely explains part of my fixation. And hopefully, there isn’t a 12-step program to rid me of my addiction.

According to the line’s website, Finger Lakes Railway (FGLK) is a Class III, short-line railroad. Serving six counties in the heart of the Finger Lakes Region, it’s one of 13 short lines operating in New York. When compared to massive Class I lines like Union Pacific, its 167 miles of trackage might seem paltry. But to the factories, mills and processing plants it serves – it’s a big deal. Needing to know more, I contacted Stephen Fisk, vice president and general manager of Finger Lakes Railway. He suggested I visit the Geneva freight yard for a firsthand look.

The FGLK system consists of trackage from several defunct railroads. The mainline, running from Solvay to Canandaigua, was once part of the New York Central Railroad’s “Auburn Road.” The rails running from Manchester to Victor were part of the Lehigh Valley Railroad (LVRR) two-track mainline. A second section of LVRR runs south from Geneva, past the Seneca Army Depot to Kendaia. Last, the line connecting Penn Yan to Watkins Glen was originally part of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Elmira branch.

The Excursion Experience
During the mid-2000s, FGLK operated excursion trains and acquired six passenger coaches, naming some after the largest of the Finger Lakes. Scheduled excursion service ended in 2013, prompting me to wonder if folks still have an interest. “Everybody wants to ride,” said Tammy Spina, FGLK’s customer service supervisor. “But the railroad has several issues to resolve.” She explained that if excursion operations resume, they will likely run during the autumn months and be updated on the FGLK website.

When excursions still ran, the trainset was frequently pulled by loco 2201, a GE model U23B, diesel electric. As seen in the Geneva freight yard, the 2201 sports the Cornell red and black livery of the long-defunct Lehigh Valley Railroad. And while the design and color of the 2201 is unique, it’s not the only one with “legacy” livery.

Train Tracking
At least seven locomotives on the FGLK’s engine roster (1703, 2303, 2304, 2305, 2308, 2309 and 2310) feature jet-black livery with a white and gray “lightning bolt” stripe on the engine, similar to that of the New York Central diesels I remember from my youth.

My great grandfather was a New York Central engineer, and I’m steeped in the railroad’s history and culture. Early on, I noticed a resemblance between their old logos and those of FGLK. Was it a coincidence? I wasn’t sure, and regardless of who I asked, the “answer” was always the same – a mysterious smile.

During more recent trips to Geneva, I observed 2309 and 2310 double-heading heavy freight loads south, toward Himrod via the Norfolk Southern rails that FGLK has rights to use. Both are GE model B23-7, “Dash” units. Last July, I chased the pair down Route 14 and photographed them hauling dump cars of heavy stone. The tracks parallel the highway and cross many private roads, so the train was traveling slowly, which made it easy to speed ahead and take pictures. Eventually, the engineer probably caught on that I was a train nut.

Another day, while returning from Seneca Falls, I arrived at a rail crossing on Routes 5 & 20 just as a 3-engine lockup was passing through town. After the crossing gates lifted, knowing the next decent trainspotting location was in Auburn, I sped ahead and arrived shortly before engines 1703, 2303 and 2309 rolled into town. Three weeks later, I found 2309 and 2310 on a siding in Solvay, awaiting entry to the CSX yard to pick up a 45-car westbound interchange consist.
 
The Business of Being a Railroad
Despite my family history and kid-like fascination with trains, the bottom line is – a railroad is a business. And since 1995, when FGLK was formed, it has thrived. Initially, the line was hauling 5,000 carloads annually, using three diesel locomotives. Due to affiliation/interchange services with Norfolk Southern, CSX, Canadian Pacific and New York Susquehanna & Western railroads; the line currently hauls over 18,000 carloads. The engine roster has grown to 14, including a pair of beefy, bright blue EMD SD45s, which a crew member referred to as “our big boys.”

FGLK trains haul commodities ranging from sand and fertilizer to grain and canned goods. Combined with the affiliation, enhanced marketing efforts have been so successful that The American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association (ASLRRA) presented FGLK with its coveted Marketing Award in 2012. “Retaining existing accounts and attracting new ones means utilizing our ‘Golden Triangle’ marketing strategy,” said Jan “The Deal” McNeal, FGLK’s vice president of marketing, also an experienced railroader who worked for Conrail and Kansas City Southern. “Ours is built upon competitive pricing, superior service and an adequate rail supply of railcars.”

A “Fallen Flag” Rises
In railroad terms, a “fallen flag” refers to a line that’s out of business. But thanks to the efforts of Mike Smith, FGLK president, the livery of the old New York Central has been reborn. Last October, I was invited to ride the FGLK’s 6th annual Rail Shipper’s Special. I’m not a client, potential customer or interchange affiliate, so my registration badge listed me as representing Life in the Finger Lakes – a double honor of sorts.

As our excursion rolled back to Auburn from Seneca Falls, I asked Mike about the livery and finally received the elusive answer I’d been searching for. As it turned out, Mike cut his railroading teeth working for the New York Central and really missed its color scheme. “It’s one of the perks of being the boss,” he explained with a smile. The railroad’s 20th anniversary is this year, and he hinted that something special was in the works. I hope I receive an invitation to that event, too!

Our little train consisted of engine 2308 which pulled us on the westbound leg, three passenger coaches (Seneca, J. Reilly McCarren and Canandaigua) and engine 2310, which did the head-end honors on the return leg. Built in 1954 for Canadian National, each coach had been thoroughly modernized with air conditioning, upgraded lighting, ceiling fans, new upholstery and repainted in the two-tone gray livery of the New York Central – a really snazzy package and a terrific way to showcase the line. Even better, passengers were treated to an onboard buffet and open bar!

It was a brilliant sunny day, ideal for a train ride across the Finger Lakes countryside – and the first time I’d been aboard a New York Central train since 1956, when my mom pulled me out of school for a journey by rail to Buffalo. We slowly rolled past the old passenger station in Cayuga, now home to the village offices. We crossed the mile-long causeway/bridge complex that spans the northern end of Cayuga Lake, and this was a trip highlight I won’t soon forget.

See for Yourself
FGLK welcomes visitors to its freight yard in Geneva. Bring photo ID and be prepared to remain in the designated observation area. Interested in trainspotting? There are terrific locations in Seneca Falls, Auburn and Geneva, where FGLK trains pass open areas – great for a photo op! Just be careful, wear a pair of heavy work boots and follow the rules. Who knows, maybe you’ll see me there. Until then, “Keep your hand upon the throttle and your eyes upon the rail.”
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EXTRA! EXTRA!
• The Finger Lakes Railway office and freight yard is located at 68 Border City Road in Geneva, 14456. Call 315-781-1234 to schedule a visit, or check out fglkrail.com.
• Finger Lakes Railway is part of the Farmrail System, Inc. For more information, visit farmrail.com.
• For a listing of FGLK’s locomotive roster plus hundreds of photos, visit rrpicturearchives.net.  Please note copyright restrictions.


by Rich Finzer
Rich Finzer resides in Hannibal. During his 44 years as a writer, he’s written nearly 1,200 newspaper, magazine and Internet articles. His award-winning book, Maple on Tap is available through ACRES USA. His novels, Taking the Tracks and Julie & Me are available at Amazon.com. Rich extends his sincere thanks and appreciation to FGLK staff and management for their assistance in preparation of this article.