It might become an annual tradition for Mark Snider: Snagging a spot on one of the first trips of the season from Boston to Hyannis on the CapeFlyer, the weekend trains launched by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority last year.
He loves the breathtaking view as he crosses the Cape Cod Canal Railroad Bridge and the buzz of passengers loosening up in the first hours of their vacations.
But he has a particular reason to be fond of the train service to the Cape: He used to run his own.
“Every year was different; we were churning and we were learning,” Snider said. “Every year was an adventure.”
Snider, 57, was considered a minor celebrity in the transportation world when, in the early 1980s at 24 years old, he bought a fleet of antique trains and started running the Cape Cod & Hyannis Railroad: weekend service from Braintree to Hyannis that, for years, enjoyed hearty popularity and was lauded by state legislators who granted him government subsidies.
But by 1989, the subsidies disappeared, and his railroad was forced to shut down.
For Snider, watching the success of the MBTA’s new weekend train service to the Cape, which began seasonal service on Friday, has been bittersweet, a reminder of the disappointing evaporation of his experimental train service, but also an opportunity to help this new venture avoid the same pitfalls.
“It’s the best thing in the world to have a state agency running the service, because it gives it longevity,” Snider said.
The son of a real estate developer, Snider grew up with a passion for transportation, ships and ferries mostly, fanned by childhood vacations on the Cape.
It was not until he was older, driving down Route 128 on a crowded afternoon, that he saw a freight train glide by and was struck by the idea to offer Cape-goers a different transportation option. He borrowed money from his father and purchased a fleet of antique trains.
“Avoid Memorial Day traffic,” trumpeted one of the ads Snider put in the newspaper. “Take the train to the Vineyard!” Another beckoned: “Let the Rail-abration Begin!”
From the first season, Snider said, customers lit up the switchboard with requests for information about when and how to take the train. He used gimmicks to lure travelers: one weekend, a live jazz band roamed the train, to the delight of passengers.
Snider made a name for himself. In a 1983 profile, People Magazine lauded his “burgeoning career as a transportation tycoon,” with a full-page picture of Snider, in a suit, sitting astride the locomotive of one of his trains.
But there were also difficulties. At first, legislators were willing to subsidize the cost of the train service, as construction on the Southeast Expressway was causing chaos for drivers. But near the end of the 1980s, a worsening economy caused state legislators to make cuts. For several years, approval of the state subsidies came well after the start of summer, delaying the beginning of the railroad’s season.
“Every year, it was chaos to get it started,” Snider said. “It’s very hard to run a business that way.”
Meanwhile, insurance prices soared. The Cape Cod & Hyannis Railroad could not keep up.
“After the 1988 season, I think the writing was on the wall,” Snider said. “Nothing is forever, and it was time to move on.”
After the train service shut down, the company was saddled with allegations of corruption, allegations that were later dismissed by the US attorney’s office.
It was a disappointing end for Snider’s big dream. He moved on to real estate ventures, to “purchasing and revamping resorts on Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard.”
Snider keeps a model train set on the shelf of his office and framed photos of family and longtime employees waving and grinning from the trains.
“I loved this railroad” he said. “I invested my life in this railroad, and I believed in it in its entirety.”
More than 20 years later, Snider received a call from Thomas Cahir, a former state representative who had been a fan of Snider’s rail service. Cahir, head of the Cape Cod Regional Transit Authority, was seeking advice on pushing the MBTA for a couple of commuter rail trains to run to the Cape. Snider was the most knowledgeable of the challenges.
“Mark Snider was instrumental in making the case all those years ago that something like a Cape train could work,” Cahir said.
More than a year later, Snider was on the CapeFlyer’s inaugural voyage, not as staff, but as a passenger. The train was newer, the cabs were air-conditioned, and the trip was faster, but so much felt the same, especially the heart-in-your-throat feeling of crossing the Cape Cod Canal.
“It was such a rewarding feeling, a wonderful feeling,” he said. “It was really something. A trip down memory lane.”