BERLIN — The Cog Railway won’t be building an upscale hotel in 2019 on the upper reaches of Mount Washington, but entering its 150th season the Cog still has a lot planned, says owner Wayne Presby, including resumption of year-round operation and the start of a top-to-bottom re-railing.
Presby made his comments Saturday during a break from welding components for the new rails in the massive workshop at the former Issacson Structural Steel plant. The facility is owned by Presby’s brother, David, and though located some 42 miles from the Cog’s Base Station, it makes an ideal temporary maintenance facility for the Cog.
The workshop easily accommodates the Cog’s engines — six biodiesels and two steamers — as well as a seventh biodiesel that is under construction.
When the Cog opens the 2019 season in early April, “we will have nine working engines,” said Presby, which, he added, “is the most in the railroad’s history.”
Joining those engines on the Cog tracks will be a piece of equipment that Presby said has no equal anywhere and is “the largest car the railroad’s ever built.”
That car measures 56-feet, six-inches long; 12-feet, nine-inches high, without roof or trucks; and nine-feet, eight-inches wide. It is equipped with a knuckleboom crane and will be filled with a variety of power tools but the car’s unique feature is a 33-foot-long opening in the floor that will allow crews to work on the rail and tracks 24-7 while being shielded from the elements.
The car will be flat-bedded from Berlin on Feb. 12 and, upon arrival at the Marshfield Base Station, lifted onto its wheel by a large crane.
Presby expects that two crews will begin the re-railing process shortly thereafter, proceeding at maybe 40 feet per day, with the pace improving to 100 feet as the workers become more proficient. He said the re-railing, which is believed to be the first complete one since about 1900, will take two years.
The new rails he called “massively over-engineered” because they’re designed for trains that travel 85 miles per hour and have wheel loads of 60,000 pounds, whereas the Cog operates at 5 mph and has a 10,000-pound wheel load. Still, the new rails will make the trip smoother for riders and crew. They will also decrease wear and tear on the rails and thereby reduce upkeep costs, he said, “and safety will improve an incredible amount.”
“This is incremental. This is monumental. This is taking the railroad to another level,” said Presby.
Asked whether the cumulative improvements will mean increased capacity and ridership, Presby answered indirectly, saying that whatever money they do generate — and a revenue stream in general — is important for one reason only: “It allows things to get done” now and helps create a legacy “for the next 150 years.”
Although only in his early 60’s, Presby is thinking about his potential successor, who might be his nephew, Ryan Presby, who, Presby said, is “more or less my second-in-command” now at the Cog and has a passion and aptitude for the business.
In 2018, the Cog had its seventh record season in a row of ridership, said Presby, with some 122,000 passengers.
That number could grow in 2019 because the Cog will begin running trains the first week in April on weekends only, before daily operation from May through November and after that on weekends and holiday weeks through the winter.
Given that the Cog will be out laying rail and actively removing snow from the tracks with a newly purchased, dual rotary snowblower, there was really no reason not to operate passenger trains even on a limited basis during the winter, said Presby.
He pointed out that from 2004-2007, the Cog ran a ski train from the Base Station to the Waumbeck Siding at 3,800 feet. That enterprise included snowmaking, a grooming machine and even its own ski patrol.
Concerns about what the Cog does with its property — the railway owns a 99-foot-wide strip of land from the summit of Mount Washington down to the Base Station — arose immediately after Presby announced plans in late 2016 to build a 35-room hotel with a restaurant in time for the railway’s July 3, 2019, sesquicentennial.
To be known as the Skyline Lodge, after the switch of the same name that is about 1,000 feet below the peak of the highest mountain in the Northeast, the hotel was opposed by seven conservation groups that worried it would disturb the fragile alpine zone on Mount Washington and also impair views.
While he presented the concept of the hotel to the Coos County Planning Board, Presby subsequently never filed a formal site plan application and on Saturday he said it was too late to do so now for 2019.
Asked whether the Cog will add a lodging component in the future — critics of the Skyline Lodge have said an ideal place for a hotel would be in the area of the Base Station — Presby said he has “no idea at this point,” but added, “you never know.”
For now, Presby’s attention is on re-railing; “extending our tracks to the full extent of our right of way” at the summit; designing and engineering a new on-site maintenance shed; and getting ready to celebrate the Cog reaching the 150-year milestone.
There will be two celebrations, one for the public at a date to be announced, the other on June 23, which is billed as a reunion for all past and present Coggers.