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New rail operator thrilled with results

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SARATOGA SPRINGS -- When Saratoga & North Creek Railway customers began filling the parking lot at the train station in Saratoga Springs to capacity this summer, the train company leased a patch of adjacent land to add more parking.

When that was full, they brought in a shuttle to take riders from their vehicles at Saratoga Springs High School to the train station for the ride to North Creek.

For Ed Ellis, owner of Iowa Pacific Holdings LLC, the railway's parent company, it's not a bad problem to have less than five months after opening.

"That's how wildly successful it's been," Ellis said during a visit to the train station Thursday. "If anything, we were conservative in our business plan. The ridership has been more than expected."

Ellis had expected the train would see about 38,000 riders from its first run on July 23 through the end of 2011, he said. He expects the actual total to be nearly 60,000.

Two-thirds of those riders will be aboard the Christmas-themed Polar Express train - more customers than Ellis expects to see on Polar Express trains the company operates in Oregon and Texas.

The Polar Express began in mid-November and ends Dec. 28. A ski-themed "snow train" begins two days later and will run on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through the winter, leaving Saratoga Springs at 7 a.m. and returning at 6:20 p.m.

It will drop train tourists on Main Street in North Creek for the first time since October. Polar Express riders don't leave the train cars.

Slightly more than half of those who take the snow train are expected to ski at Gore Mountain. Business owners are hoping the rest spend their money at the foot of the mountain in North Creek, and they're working to give them as many reasons to do so as they can.

"It's a continued effort," said Mike Bowers, owner of barVino in North Creek.

Bowers, who is part of what's called the Business Alliance, a group of business owners, said there's a "real synergy" between North Creek and the train company. He said some businesses that would otherwise have failed will continue to operate, thanks to business from the train's riders.

Ellis said the train brought 450 people to North Creek on its busiest day this year.

"There was a guy who told me it'd be a cold day in Hell when 100 people would get off a train in North Creek," he recalled.

Ellis, who works in the company's corporate office in Chicago, said the firm expects to operate regular runs between Saratoga Springs and North Creek from roughly Memorial Day through Oct. 31 in 2012. He said the company is considering expanding the schedule to six or seven days per week instead of five.

The seven whistle stops along the way will remain the same, he said.


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