Leishman looks at restarting scenic rail service

WILTON – When Stuart Draper started the Wilton Scenic Railroad in 2003, many people were delighted.

The seasonal tourist train ran seven days a week between Wilton and Greenfield. Its forested route went by Zephyr Lake and over the highest rail trestle in New Hampshire. Passengers could visit an alpaca farm at the end of the run, and it sometimes featured a mystery dinner theater or a blues train.

Less than three years later, Draper, who had been the owner of the Draper Fuel Co. and Wilton Telephone Co., died of a heart attack. The scenic train died too, and when its two diesel cars were sold, the last hope for a rebirth seemed gone.

But now, the owner of the Milford-Bennington Railroad says he may start it up again.

In a phone interview Monday, Peter Leishman said he is “taking a serious look” and talking to owners of passenger rail cars with a view toward starting a weekend tourist train. Wilton business owners, he said, “have been bugging me for years,” because the train brought an additional 10,000 people into town. “People loved it. They were so upset,” when the train stopped.

Leishman has been transporting earth materials between a quarry in Wilton and Granite State Concrete in Milford since 1992, and Pan Am Railways, the regional railroad system that owns about three miles of track that Milford-Bennington uses, is asking the Surface Transportation Board to end the local rail company’s right to use those tracks.

In a notice of intent filed March 5, Pan Am is asking the federal agency for an “adverse discontinuance.”

But a tourist rail service would conceivably generate favorable public comments to the agency, which always looks at local impacts and it takes public comments, said Leishman, both pro and con. A scenic railroad would definitely be a positive.

Jennifer Beck, the chairwoman of the Wilton Economic Development Committee, told the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript recently that a passenger train would be “a game changer for the town … an anchor attraction that would bring in foot traffic.”

The committee has compiled information on the tourist train to send to the Surface Transportation Board to object to Pan Am’s filing. And at Wilton Town Meeting voters took an overwhelming straw vote in support of the line.

The tourist train attracted people to the town, and the Milford-Bennington Railroad keeps trucks off the roads, Leishman said.

“We historically move 30 rail cars a day, which would equate to 90 trucks a day in each direction,” he said.

Milford-Bennington began operating in 1992 after lengthy litigation with owners Boston and Maine/Springfield Terminal, which had abandoned the Wilton to Bennington line, said Leishman. It had identified the Milford to Wilton section as a candidate for abandonment.

More recently, Pan Am, the parent company of the Boston and Maine/Springfield Terminal, also tried to get the local railroad removed from the state corridor abpout four years ago.

Leishman is a state representative from Peterborough and has been talking to people involved with economic development in Wilton and Greenfield.

He said the line has received extensive rehabilitation, and “it would not take a great deal of money,” maybe $100,000, to get a tourist train running again.

Pan Am did not respond to a phone call.