A good partner

A little over 20 years ago, after much collaboration, a plan was developed for the railroad in the Tri-Lakes. It was agreed that the railroad would be the centerpiece of a multi-use corridor, snowmobiling would be permitted, and trails would be built next to or nearby the track. It would have something for everyone and preserve rail transportation for future generations.

Half of the line was rehabilitated on the south end, and Gov. Pataki directed that northern quarter to Lake Placid be rebuilt, too, in the year 2000. The railroad was asked to operate there too, with the connecting section in Tupper Lake to be rebuilt in the last phase. The railroad responded by recruiting and training many volunteers, dividing itself into three operating locations and promptly borrowing for and purchasing three separate train sets, all to cover the locations while the last section was completed. But unfortunately, while this was realized on the railroad side, it was never realized on the state side.

There were many reasons for this delay. Most significant, I believe, was 9/11, which understandably consumed enormous funding and attention. (I will always remember where I was that day, as I was the conductor on the train to Saranac Lake.) The result, however, is that the last phase of track repair was never finished. For the railroad and the public, it has been a long wait ever since.

And yet here we are 20 years ago all over again.

This time, despite never completing what it started 20 years ago, the state developed a new interest, a new plan. Now it wants to build a trail with a new partner on the corridor. I wonder what makes Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates or any other trail stakeholder think they will be any more successful working with a state that never fulfilled its promises to its last partner?

It’s a stunning thought, really. Could the state get a better, more loyal partner than the Adirondack Scenic Railroad has been for the corridor? A partner that has stood by patiently for over 20 years, caretaking the state’s asset for next to nothing, just waiting to fulfill the mission that was agreed upon? It has trained and qualified hundreds of volunteers over the years, donating thousands of hours to the cause, dutifully complying with all kinds of state and federal regulations just to fulfill the agreed objective: to preserve, maintain and operate the rail corridor and, in doing so, indirectly support additional recreational uses and the local economy, too.

As well, why would anyone believe in projected outcomes from a new group, completely untested, instead of taking seriously actual numbers and trends from an organization already doing the work for the past 20 years? Commitment, experience and activity matter. If I said 250,000 people would ride the train next year, you would never believe me, and you shouldn’t because that isn’t realistic, at least not now. So why then would you accept the wild claim that 250,000 visitors annually will use a trail from Lake Placid to Tupper Lake? It is simply not logical.

I can understand that a short, 10-mile trail between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake would be very popular. But without the railroad alongside, it is a 20-mile commitment to get back to where you started. They’ll want to do a lot on their visit, and that trek may be more than they want to commit to. Especially with kids, the elderly or disabled. With a parallel train and trail, if they choose to go one way, they have an easier way back, and that would benefit both the train and a trail. Why not have the attraction with the most options so there is something for everyone? The rail-with-trail plan is viable, and the right of way is favorable to it.

Will large groups walk south to Lake Clear? Some will. But wait, it is another 12-mile round trip, a 32-mile round trip back to Lake Placid. How about another 30 miles round trip to Tupper Lake with nothing but black flies to keep you company through the wilderness? That is a long walk, perhaps a 12-hour day, but seriously, who will do this? Will those with disabilities ever contemplate an outing like that? On a train it’s different. Everyone can ride regardless of their station in life.

With these bleak trail outcomes in mind, why tear up a perfectly good working railroad that can support visitors and connect the Tri-Lakes so easily? Think a twice or three times daily shuttle. The idea of heavy trail usage from Lake Placid to Tupper Lake is just pure fantasy put forth by a group that may be well intentioned, but there is no basis to its claims. It is a shortsighted plan that will destroy the only alternative transportation option within the Adirondack Park. Why would you eliminate this only other option from present and future generations? Build a trail with the rail. You can have both.

With the Adirondack Scenic Railroad, you have a 20-plus-year-old organization that knows the railroad. That wants to caretake the railroad still. That has grown and matured and shown serious staying power and commitment. That has paid off all the equipment purchases it made in preparation for the completed railroad. Isn’t that what you want in a partner, someone who is accountable, open to compromise by serving all users, someone who will stay and see it all through? Coupled with a successful rail organization are the rail bikes, too, that have a tremendous draw. So here we are at the critical point. Everything is here and ready if you will just install some new ties in the unfinished section and be done with it! Just complete the work planned over 20 years ago. Ties are simple, cheap and last 50 years. They are bargain infrastructure! Then work together and build an awesome companion trail!

I write from my experience as a former manager for the railroad. I have spent the last 30 years in construction, tourist and commuter rail operations management. I know the railroad is three-quarters complete. I know it is rare and worth saving. I know an interesting trail can be created. I know the railroad can be finished for less cost than any other alternative, and in doing so, it will serve the public for generations to come. I know it can host all kinds of rail service too, perhaps in ways we cannot yet imagine with modern equipment, so it’s not all about nostalgia, either, although the line’s history is very important.

It looks to me like some want to chase a new relationship because they have been charmed. I hope they take a deep breath and realize that in addition to the wonderful rail asset they have, how lucky they are to have had a strong and devoted partner in the Adirondack Scenic Railroad, a strong organization of hundreds of dedicated volunteers and employees who are ready to partner with trail advocates and are waiting to take care of the entire corridor. You can’t ask for more than that.

Peter A. Snyder lives in Meriden, Connecticut.