The focus is on weekend tourist excursions, not commuter service, with steam engines being used about half the time. BR&W also envisions service to holiday themed events, trips to Delaware & Raritan State Park, and trains providing access to special events in downtown Lambertville.
The Flemington Branch of the railroad runs north to Flemington and Three Bridges, and the Alexuaken Division meanders south 2.5 miles to Bowne Station, then continues another 4.5 miles to Lambertville. BR&W volunteers are working to replace ties and clear brush along the 4.5 miles of track to Lambertville. The company hopes to start service within two years.
Founded in the early 1960’s by a group of friends with an interest in steam railroading, the first BR&W passenger trains between Flemington and Ringoes operated under a lease agreement with the Pennsylvania Railroad, which still operated freight service on the line. BR&W purchased the line from Lambertville to Flemington, later added the former Central Railroad of New Jersey line from Flemington to Three Bridges, and entered the freight business. BR&W currently serves several industrial customers in Hunterdon and Warren counties.
But the heart and soul of the railroad remains the steam locomotive, with its storied history and iconic whistle.
“Our mission is to preserve and educate the public about railroads and railroad history,” explained Scott Kwiatkowski, a member of the management committee of BR&W and superintendent of the Alexauken Division. “We’ll operate a 1937 Alco steam engine every other weekend. As with any 80-year-old piece of equipment, there’s always maintenance items that we’ll keep an eye on and improve, so if something acts up — like the air compressor governor — we’ll look at it during the week to make sure it’s working just the way we want.”
Kwiatkowski said the steam engine will run every weekend during the Christmas season. He’s been with the railroad 27 years, and wears many hats in his role.
“Sunday, I was cleaning trash cans, then repairing track, working on locomotives, and stocking stuff in the store,” he said.
Work on the railroad, most of it performed by volunteers, is demanding and highly regulated.
“We’re all subject to random drug tests,” noted Kwiatkowski. “We all go through rigorous testing and training to ensue the safety of our volunteers and visiting public.”
The ultimate destination for the rail line is Lambertville Station, now housing a popular restaurant, historically significant in itself for its role in the emergence of the city from the shadow of New Hope as a tourist site. BR&W is talking with restaurant owners on ways to make the new arrangement work for both.
“We have to come to some agreement with the station,” said Kwiatkowski. “We own the platform, so we have to work out with Lambertville Station exactly where passengers will be boarding and buying tickets.”
When each train is ready to return north, it will head slightly south of the station to where a side track will allow for repositioning the engine.
“The train will pull down into the runaround, take the engine from one end, and put it on the other for their return trip,” Kwiatkowski explained.
While many in Lambertville, particularly long-time residents, feel a sense of nostalgia in seeing the locomotives of their youth return to the city, there is also concern in some quarters about the potential environmental impact of renewed train service, including noise, smoke, and diesel engine exhaust.
Several residents were unhappy with extensive tree cutting near the tracks along the Delaware & Raritan Canal, but that was eventually determined to have been performed by the New Jersey Water Supply Authority, who said it was part of an effort to secure the aging stone walls of the waterway.
Most recently, some residents have been alarmed by the application of herbicide along the rail line.
“Sometime today, Black River & Western Railroad sprayed Helostate Plus going up to the trestle bridge and for 12 feet along railroad tracks,” wrote Lindsay Gallagher on June 5 in the Lambertville 2.0 Facebook group. “Helostate contains glysophate, which is the cancer causing agent in Roundup. My concern is it seeping into the ground and effecting the canal. Trout are stocked there as well it being home to geese, ducks, frogs and turtles.”
“The chemicals we use all meet New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection guidelines, so we do all of our herbicide application per those guidelines, and they’re very safe for the environment,” he said. “We encourage people to stay off the tracks for safety of themselves and their pets. It’s private property.”
“We will probably provide a benefit to the environment by getting cars off the road,” continued Kwiatkowski. “Train travel is naturally fuel efficient, and no more of an environmental concern than the average automobile.”
Kwiatkowski believes that that the revival of train service to Lambertville will be a big plus for the city’s economy, while helping to keep alive the allure of American railroading.
“Lambertville used to build railroad locomotives — there’s a lot of railroad history in Lambertville,” he observed. “We look forward to working with City of Lambertville and all the residents on the option the train will provide as another tourist attraction.”