Ridin' the rails in Newport [Print]  [Home]

The Old Colony & Newport Railway: a new train of thought.

Imagine walking to or parking your car at various locations on the west side of Aquidneck Island and then taking the train for a short hop to downtown Newport, the shopping areas of Middletown, or the Bay side of Portsmouth. Imagine visitors leaving their cars at the end of the island's three bridges and then enjoying a scenic, stress-free ride to their final destination. Count up the savings in gasoline, the decrease in auto emissions, and the elimination of traffic congestion. It's enough to make Al Gore smile.

According to Don Elbert, Executive Director, that was the vision of the Old Colony & Newport Railway, which was revitalized in 1979 with the mission of preserving the railway tradition by maintaining and utilizing the 4 1/2-miles of track that run from Newport's Visitors Center to Portsmouth's Sakonnet Bridge.

In its former life, the Old Colony & Newport Railroad began operations in 1864, carrying passengers and freight between Newport, Boston, and New York. It served as an alternate, often calmer means of transportation to the Fall River Steamship Line. However, by the mid 1930's, tourists and residents alike had decided that the automobile was a more convenient way to go, and the railroad, now owned by the New Haven, New York, and Hartford Railroad began its long decline into bankruptcy.

The State of Rhode Island took over the right of way, and the tracks languished until a group of train buffs formed the National Railroad Foundation, rented the track from the State, and began operating as the Old Colony & Newport Railroad. The group purchased a 1945 electric diesel engine, a 1904 Boston & Maine passenger coach, and with the help of a private individual an 1884 office car from the Narragansett Pier Railroad.

Today, approximately 18 volunteers from all over New England and ranging in age from under 20 to over 70, oversee year-round operations, track and equipment maintenance, and marketing.

Engineers spend 6 months of on-the-job training after which they are certified to have met national standards. On every trip, the engineer is accompanied by a conductor and trainman. The trainman throws the switches, serves as a lookout as the diesel pushes the train back to Newport, and helps the conductor narrate the journey. Many young volunteers have gone on to careers on other railroads in operations or management.

The OCNRR shares the tracks with the Newport Dinner Train, which is primarily responsible for track maintenance. Operating on separate schedules and with different equipment, the two groups' trains are often shunted onto sidings at the Newport terminus, Navy Base piers, Melville, or Willow Lane to allow passage.

At 11:45 am and 1:45 p.m. on Sundays, passengers climb aboard for an 80-minute narrated ride up the Bay to Green Lane and back – making the OCNRR the only tourist train in the north to run year-round. At other times, the train is chartered for longer trips which can cover the entire 12 -miles of the track.

But according to Elbert, even with two lines operating separately, there is still much more passenger service that could be provided. That is a vision he shares with The Islander Touring Train, a subsidiary of Dinner Trains of New England. The company has formulated a plan that, as development continues to expand at the north end of Aquidneck Island, will provide shuttle rail service to and from the Sakonnet Bridge to Newport for residents, boaters, commuters, and tourists alike. Most important, is that Don Elbert and the other founders of the OCNRR were able to give enough time and energy to the Newport Secondary Track that it has been preserved as an alternative transportation corridor for the future. Without the OCNRR efforts, it would have been abandoned, over grown, and possibly sold off to the abutters.

Yet, Elbert worries that access to the tracks from Bristol Ferry, Anthony, Mussel Shoal Bed, and Stringham Roads as well as at Willow and Cory's Lane near the Portsmouth Abbey School is slowly being reduced — at a time when mass transit should be encouraged and developed. As public debate in Newport swirls around North End development — including the possible use of a shuttle train from parking areas near the Pell Bridge to downtown Newport — the mission of OCNRR has never seemed more prescient or more relevant. Once again, on this island, we're discovering how to make what's old new again.

By Nel Roberts

This article was published in 'Newport This Week' on 12/14/2007

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Meeting national standards, Peter Martin, is a certified engineer on the Old Colony & Newport Railway. He will be among the loyal volunteers who are looking forward to the Christmas Holiday runs that will leave the depot on America's Cup Avenue each day from Dec. 26 to Dec. 31 at 11:45 a.m. and 1:45 p.m.

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The railway which took place of what was once Fourth Street ran from Elm Street to Walnut Street. The depot, found abandoned on Warner Street in the early '80s, was rescued by Christie Smith. Through her support the depot was moved and restored by Rogers High School students.