Of all the dreams for restoring rail service through the Adirondacks, perhaps the wildest dream of all is the new one concocted by the Adirondack Scenic Railroad.
Having traveled to Boonville and Utica to hear the presentation by ASR about restoring Pullman sleeper-car service from New York City to Lake Placid, I was stunned by the lack of skepticism expressed by public officials and those in the tourism-promotion business. The ASR's vaunted Pullman service agreement with Iowa Pacific Holdings, which has been touted by the railroad boosters as the greatest thing since sliced bread, fell apart once people in the audience started to ask questions.
In Boonville, when the question was asked what investment Iowa Pacific was willing to make in the corridor, the railroad dreamers had no answer. (The state has put the cost of restoring the railroad infrastructure at $44 million.) It was also notable that Iowa Pacific was not represented at either meeting. As always, the railroad boosters plan on getting the money from the state with the caveat that if we don't get the grant, somebody else will. If this funding did exist, I would hope that somewhere else it could be put to good use, like to water and sewer projects. If the Regional Economic Development Council is successful in funding the ASR, these other projects will go unfunded and will raise taxes on local people.
(Promotional photo by Pullman Rail Journeys)
As for the timing of this dream? ASR President Bill Branson explained it will be at least 10 years before Pullman service starts. So all of the fluff about restoring overnight sleeper service through the Adirondacks has been much ado about nothing. Ten years from now, it's likely that ASR will be telling us that this dream will come true in just 10 more years. Be patient, folks; it's just a matter of time before high-end travelers can take an overnight train from NYC to Lake Placid, just like they did in the Good Old Days.
The Utica meeting was even more revealing when a reporter asked what the promised Pullman service was going to be like. Al Heyworth from the ASR explained. He told us that 20 times per year, a train carrying between 60 and 90 passengers, based on five or six cars each holding 12 to 15 passengers, will leave NYC at 6 p.m. on a Friday night. The train will proceed nonstop through the night (so much for scenic splendor), arriving 11 hours later in Lake Placid, at 5 a.m. The wake-up call at 4 a.m., as the train blasts its horns traveling through Saranac Lake, is enough to wake the dead. But the 5 a.m. arrival for the high-end passengers will be a hoot. They will have seven hours to kill before they check into a high-end resort here in Lake Placid. Then they can check out the following morning, and if leaving by 11 a.m., they should arrive back in NYC at 10 p.m. that night. Their scenic trip down the Hudson River from Albany to the big city will be in darkness.
It would have been comical if it was not so sad watching city officials, tourism professionals and representatives of the Adirondack North Country Association telling the people of Utica that their city will become a "hub" for train passengers. ANCA and others ostensibly in the business of promoting tourism were throwing out the promise that when these overnight trains come through, they will somehow benefit the entire region. They claimed that cities like Utica and towns like Remsen will have to up their game by providing top-notch amenities to accommodate these wealthy people. That's a highly dubious proposition, considering that the train will not be stopping all the way to Lake Placid and back.
For sleeping cars to work, you must travel at night. To have a scenic view, you have to go during the day. Sleeping-car train service involving an 11-hour trip from New York to Lake Placid, and requiring a vast expenditure of taxpayer money, is clearly not going to happen. The proposal to restore overnight train service is merely the latest attempt by ASR and ANCA to forestall conversion of the rail corridor to its far better use as a world-class recreational trail to be enjoyed by all.
Jim McCulley lives in Lake Placid and is a board member of Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates.