A train station without a train?

In his Enterprise Guest Commentary of Thursday, Nov. 2, 2017, Carl Knoch argues that the best way to ensure the future of Saranac Lake’s Union Depot is to replace the railroad with a recreational trail. To bolster this argument, he provides two photographs. One is captioned, “The train station in New Freedom, Pennsylvania, is seen before being renovated.” The second shows the same structure, “after being renovated” — a major improvement. The second photo also shows a wide, paved swath in front of the station, part of the Heritage Rail Trail. There are no railroad tracks in view. It’s a train station without a train.

The fact is, there are tracks just out of the frame to the right. If Carl had stepped back another few feet, he’d have tripped over them. Yet anybody looking at this picture, with Saranac Lake’s depot and the Adirondack Scenic Railroad in mind, would naturally conclude that what’s being proposed here is the same as what Carl’s photo implies was done in Pennsylvania — a trail replaced a railroad.

The truth is not so simple. In 1972, the double-track Penn Central line running in the corridor of the old North Central Railway was severely damaged by flooding from Tropical Storm Agnes. The railroad decided to remove the most compromised trackage and splice what remained together into a single-track line with an empty road bed sometimes on one side of the tracks and sometimes on the other. (Space does not allow a detailed history of the corridor since then.)

Was that single-track railroad torn up to make way for a trail? The truth is that the Heritage Rail Trail replaced nothing. It wasn’t even begun until 20 years after Agnes. The single-track railroad can be seen today beside the trail, and much of that trackage is now used by the rolling stock of “Steam into History,” taking tourists and locals, train enthusiasts and history buffs over part of the route that carried Lincoln to Gettysburg. Absent Enterprise Editor Peter Crowley’s corrective remarks on the newspaper’s web page and in Saturday’s print edition, the closest the text of Carl’s commentary comes to mentioning any of this is where he notes the Hanover Junction station is the place where “President Lincoln’s train switched tracks” — without, of course, admitting that the tracks are still there, carrying trains from New Freedom to Hanover Junction eight months a year (and shorter runs nine months).

But why? Why leave the tracks out of the picture and not mention them in the text as anything but a historical aside? Because the reader is supposed to believe that this could and should happen here — that it’s a good idea to destroy a railroad to make way for a trail, just like they apparently did in Pennsylvania. The truth is, the Heritage Rail Trail was laid down on a road bed that had been empty for two decades. The truth is that the destruction of an active rail line for a trail, without the consent of the operating railroad, is still contrary to the guiding principles of the Rails to Trails Conservancy (where Carl used to work). This is not the first time Carl has employed deceptively selective photography. See the Enterprise on July 11, 2015, and my response July 21.

Even if I were inclined to give Carl the benefit of the doubt and assume he omitted acknowledging the railroad because his focus was on train stations, there are other problems with what he’s telling us. For instance, he claims that our “tourist train has flunked a 20-year-long test … while providing no discernible benefits to the local communities.” The Adirondack Scenic Railroad was not being tested. This is not a trial run. If there was failure anywhere, it was with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation failing to live up to the 1996 management plan, which states, in part, “DEC will pursue the maximum degree of recreational trail development on the corridor, including hiking, bicycle and snowmobile trails, which is compatible with rail uses.”

Regarding Carl’s disparagement of “discernible benefits,” anyone walking the streets of downtown Saranac Lake could discern increased pedestrian traffic when the train was in town, could see the train riders in the restaurants and the shops. As for Lake Placid, who knows? If you unloaded Noah’s Ark on Main Street on a typical in-season Saturday, no one would notice.

But the real target of Carl’s treatise, aside from Preservation League of New York State President Jay DiLorenzo, is Saranac Lake’s supposedly “underused and deteriorating train depot.” Our train station needs repair — as do most buildings — but anybody reading Carl’s words would wonder if this depot really is the same one which has housed over the years a number of retail venues, has been the location of countless arts and civic events, or was the home of a beautiful historic interpretive display or of a tourist information center provided by the chamber of commerce, not to mention the ticket office and gift shop for the Adirondack Scenic Railroad and the headquarters for the highly successful Rail Explorers. And I guess we’re supposed to forget the marvelous $500,000 restoration of the late 1990s, made with money that came from a federal grant based on the premise that the railroad would be central to the building’s function. Are we to think that none of this ever happened and could only happen now with a trail? In New Freedom, the trail people restored their station after the trail was completed. Here, we restored our depot in anticipation of the train.

The habit of leaving things out of the frame, the upending of facts and the verbal sleight of hand that has so often typified the trail advocates’ message do a disservice to their cause. These tactics disrespect the reader and bespeak an attitude in which the ends justify the means. And just because this has become business as usual in early 21st-century America doesn’t mean we have to accept it, or that we should. We deserve better.

Phil Gallos lives in Saranac Lake.

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