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19th-century solution doesn’t make sense

September 19, 2012
By Tony Goodwin , Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates

Sept. 10's Guest Commentary by Keith Gorgas, while surely heartfelt, continues to promote the notion that a resurrected 19th-century transportation system will somehow provide a useful service today.

Yes, when the railroads were competing with stagecoaches, there were many railroads in the Adirondacks and elsewhere. Once there were alternatives that were just as fast or faster (and far more flexible), however, railroads began to lose business and shrink back to high-volume corridors. It is true that there is now only one place "left for a train to run" in the Adirondacks, but for what purpose? And most of the rest of the old roadbeds were abandoned so long ago that they have either been absorbed into the adjoining private property or been taken over by other uses so that they can not immediately (or ever) become bike trails.

Mr. Gorgas is correct that rail transport is generally more fuel-efficient (or, as he says, "greener"), but if one is moving a 120-ton locomotive and several 30-ton cars, those cars must be carrying several hundred passengers to compete with the fuel efficiency of a 20-ton bus carrying 30 passengers. A friend who is a frequent rider on the Trailways bus service from the south through to Canton reports that the number of people getting off in Lake Placid or Saranac Lake ranges from zero to four each run. This bus service runs daily and is several hours faster from New York or Albany to Lake Placid than a train would be on the circuitous route via Utica. I cannot imagine the service being more frequent than one train a day, so why would several hundred ride it (the number needed to make that service "fuel efficient") when it was no more frequent than the bus?

Furthermore, the once-daily "Adirondack" train service between Albany and Montreal requires a New York state subsidy of $3.9 million annually - and that's in addition to the overall federal Amtrak subsidy of over $1 billion annually. According to the New York State Department of Transportation website, there were approximately 60,000 boardings-alightings at the stations between and including Saratoga and Rouses Point, but the fares paid were $3.9 million short of what it actually cost to operate that service. If a train carrying 60,000 annually needs that much of a subsidy, how much of a subsidy would daily service between Utica and Lake Placid require? It is also worth noting that boardings-alightings at Saratoga actually fell slightly between 2010 and 2011, despite the well-promoted ability in 2011 to make a cross-platform transfer to the Saratoga and North Creek Railway's service to North Creek.

Mr. Gorgas also spoke of towns in Europe that had plenty of tourists even though they could only be reached by rail. One of those is Zermatt, Switzerland, and if that's the only way to get a view of the Matterhorn, tourists will take a short (12-minute) train ride to get there. I don't imagine that, if routes 73 and 86 were closed off into Lake Placid, there would be many visitors there.

Rail supporters, including Mr. Gorgas, have touted the possibility of taking recreationists to "remote" trails and canoe put-ins. Unfortunately, I am not aware of any rail-served recreational opportunities that are not accessible by vehicle. The approach to Lake Lila from the railroad is marginally shorter than the approach from the vehicle parking area, but the flexibility offered by a vehicle far outweighs the saving of a few steps. Putting in at the rail bridge on Hitchins Pond saves about a mile of paddling when going towards Lows Lake, but again, that hardly outweighs the fact that one would be tied to a fairly infrequent rail schedule.

The tourist train operations in Essex, Conn., Lancaster, Pa., and in Agawa Canyon in Canada that Mr. Gorgas says are so popular bear little relation to what can be offered here. There are reasons why, after 12 years, the Lake-Placid-to-Saranac-Lake has yet to help the local economy in any meaningful way. If it had, I would have expected local business owners to have joined this debate and called for the train's continuance.

The Essex, Conn., operation features true nostalgia with genuine steam locomotives on a one-hour ride with the option of extending the outing with a one-and-a-half-hour ride on the scenic Connecticut River on a replica of a Mississippi River riverboat. The Lancaster, Pa., operation is a 75-minute ride in the heart of Amish country where the local website seems to indicate the train is not the main reason to visit the area. The Agawa Canyon ride on the Algoma Central appears to be a stunning all-day ride through truly spectacular scenery along Lake Superior, across high trestles and through a dramatic canyon. The rails, however, exist for other profitable transport and never required millions of dollars in taxpayer funding to make them usable by the tourist operation.

Finally, I and others have said before that there is just no way one could envision the funding necessary to create a parallel path - and that's even assuming it was just a matter of paying for the fill for the wetlands without regard to modern environmental concerns. It would be nice to be able to find some compromise solution, but I believe keeping the tracks south of Thendara and from Saranac Lake to Lake Placid (with the parallel path on that generally easy stretch) amounts to a significant compromise. And without a parallel path, the freight operations Mr. Gorgas proposes would end snowmobiling on the corridor.

If you actually believe that New York state is going to spend $43 million to rehabilitate these tracks and then spend several million each year thereafter to support passenger service from Utica to Lake Placid, then keep dreaming. If you realize that will never happen, then it's time to move to the more feasible option of converting this valuable piece of state property to a trail.

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Tony Goodwin lives in Keene and is a member of Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates.

 
 

 

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