The ongoing debate regarding continued or expanded rail operations on the Adirondack Rail Corridor has produced many claims and counter-claims regarding rail operations. As one who has followed the trajectory of American railroads from steep decline in the '60s and '70s to a return to profitability and relevance today, I hope this Commentary can add some clarity to the debate.
Claim: Rail transportation is more fuel efficient that highway transport. Yes, ton for ton the steel wheel on the steel rails is generally considered to be four times more efficient at moving the same weight over the same distance. Of necessity, however, railroad equipment is designed to haul long strings of freight or passenger cars and therefore must be stronger and heavier. For instance, the current configuration of the Lake Placid to Saranac Lake tourist train is one 120-ton engine and four 30-ton passenger cars for a total of approximately 240 tons. Given the four to one advantage, moving 240 tons by rail is the same as moving 60 tons by highway. A 50-passenger bus, by comparison, weighs about 20 tons. Doing the math, the train would therefore have to carry 200 passengers to "break even" with the bus. But how often has this tourist train carried more than 200 passengers, and how often would that many ride from Utica should that service be restored?
The same math applies to the proposed freight service. When CSX moves a 100-car double-stack container train along the water-level route from Buffalo's Frontier Yard to Albany's Selkirk Yard, it probably does better than the four to one fuel advantage. By contrast, a five or ten car freight with a little red caboose at the end may look cute, but it is hardly fuel efficient.
Claim: There has been a "railroad renaissance" and railroads are now profitable. The Staggers Act of 1980 significantly de-regulated the railroad industry and returned industry to overall profitabilty by giving the railroads greater authority to set rates. The Staggers Act also made it much easier for railroads to abandon money-losing, dead-end branch lines through "thin" territory. (Sound familiar?) While some of these abandonments have led to profitable short lines, the line to Lake Placid has no online customers and no prospect of any customers that could ship the multiple weekly carloads necessary to keep 100+ miles of track profitable.
Claim: Once the rails have been removed, it can never be a railroad again. In 1983, three years after the Staggers Act permitted numerous abandonments, Congress approved "railbanking" as way to preserve abandoned rail corridors for future rail use. This law has since been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. To date, only a few short sections of rail trail have actually been reactivated, but the law is clear that trail users are only "borrowing" (and maintaining in good condition) the rail right of way until rail use might again become profitable. Given that the Adirondack Division was one of the first lines that the New York Central wanted to abandon, it stands to reason that this would be one of the last to be reactivated.
Claim: The rail corridor is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and therefore the tracks must remain. It's the 19th Century vision that created the corridor through the wilderness and not the rails that are historic. The corridor includes historic bridges, culverts, fills and stations (not to mention the scenery) that would be appreciated by even more users were the corridor to become a recreational trail.
Claim: If the rails are removed, adjoining landowners can reclaim the land taken for rail use. While there have been such attempts to thwart rail trail conversions, court cases have consistently affirmed the intent of the railbanking legislation: i.e. once created, such rights of way should be preserved for future use.
Claim: The estimated cost of upgrading the line to Tupper Lake to FRA Class III is way too high. For good reason, Federal Railroad Administration track standards are high. Camoin Associates recognized that higher track speeds were required to make the Tupper Lake extension viable. While one could argue that there should be an intermediate step between Class II (30 mph operation) and Class III (60 mph operation), the railroad would have to be upgraded to Class III. (This is based on the optimum length of time tourists would want to spend on the train and the desire to run two round trips each day.) The Camoin estimate of $10.6 million to upgrade to Class III is consistent with the costs to date of patching the line from Thendara to Saranac Lake plus restoring Saranac Lake to Lake Placid to Class II condition. The upgrade will require additional carefully-placed ballast, new ties and rails, and an exact alignment of the new rails to guarantee safe operation at the intended speeds. Very little of this work could be done with volunteer labor. By contrast, the tracks can be removed without cost. Furthermore, removal provides an immediate benefit to snowmobilers, while much of the additional grading for summer bicycle use could legitimately be done by low-skilled volunteers.
Claim: A conversion to recreational use would be a waste of all the money spewnt to date. Much of the money spent to date has been spent to restore drainage and cut brush. In a 2006 letter to this author, DOT acknowledged that this work would have been needed regardless of the ultimate use of the corridor. Yes, actual track, tie and ballast work done to date will be lost, but that was hardly the only cost associated with the rail restoration to date.
Tony Goodwin lives in Keene.