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Freight rail service to the Adirondacks

December 4, 2012
By David Banks

Commentaries in the Enterprise in support of freight train service to the Tri-Lakes region often mention fuel efficiency. One writer recently cited the statement, "A ton of freight can be hauled 500 miles on a gallon of fuel."

It's true that trains can move freight more efficiently than trucks, but only if the trains are heavily loaded and operating efficiently.

Railroads' impressive potential efficiency is the result of their specializing in hauling very large quantities of products such as coal, farm products, ore, metals, chemicals, non-metallic minerals, automobiles and waste/scrap. Railroads have improved their efficiency by increasing the maximum gross weight of a four-axle freight car from 263,000 pounds to 286,000 pounds, with a load capacity of up to 220,000 pounds per car. These 286,000-pound cars are often joined together into "unit trains" of 70 to 125 cars that carry a single product that can be efficiently loaded, transported and unloaded. Further improvements in efficiency have been driven by containerized shipments that can be efficiently transferred from truck to train to ship.

The rail industry is dominated by a handful of "Class I" carriers, including Union Pacific, BNSF, Norfolk Southern and CSX, which connect with many "short line" railroads. Many Class I railroads look for connecting short-line railroads to handle 286,000-pound cars. These heavier cars place very large stresses on rails, joints, ties, fastenings, bridges and road beds. If the rail infrastructure is not designed and continually maintained to withstand such heavy loads, there is a significant risk of failure. Further, U.S. rail service is moving in the direction of 315,000-pound rail cars, which will place even greater stresses on rail infrastructure.

Any hope for viable freight rail service to the Tri-Lakes region would require that most freight to the region move by rail from the Southwest. However, the Tri-Lakes region receives freight from all directions. Rerouting of this freight through Remsen would involve substantial delays and increased costs, limiting the ability of local businesses to quickly replenish their inventories and serve their customers. "Time is money," and UPS, FedEx, the U.S. Postal Service and many other carriers would be unlikely to use rail service within this region given their established, efficient distribution systems and their competition on the basis of speed of service.

Less than 1 percent of the population of New York state resides in the Adirondacks, and rail carriers already serve much of the perimeter of this region. The very substantial freight volume needed to sustain commercially viable rail service to the Tri-Lakes region would require that existing businesses and residents along this sparsely populated corridor consume many millions of pounds of rail freight per week, or that the railroad serve major new commercial ventures (e.g., heavy industry such as oil refining or auto manufacturing, large-scale mining, mass harvesting of forests) which appear inconsistent with the "forever wild" character of much of the Adirondack Park.

I appreciate the dedication and hard work of local rail advocates, as well as local sentiment in favor of rail service. I travel on Amtrak when I can. However, we must look objectively at rail freight or passenger service to the region. Given the poor prospects for such large freight volume along this line, economically self-sufficient freight rail service to the Tri-Lakes appears unlikely, and rail service would depend on major initial and ongoing funding from the state. With recent new demands on the state budget in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, it may prove even more difficult to credibly argue that our region's dreams of train service should be assigned a higher priority for state funding than other needs.

A more practical and productive use of the rail corridor between Remsen and Lake Placid would appear to be its conversion to a recreational trail for walking, running, bicycling, snowmobiling, communing with nature, etc. Many visitors and residents would enjoy such an amenity, and the economic benefits to the region would far exceed any other use of the corridor that I can imagine.


David Banks lives in Lake Clear.





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