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‘Climate change and reality.’ Really?

Keith Gorgas’ guidance for young climate activists (“Climate change and reality,” Adiorndack Daily Enterprise Guest Commentary, Sept. 23) is, “First of all, we must look at the whole picture,” and examine how complex some environmental issues are. “Secondly, we must act locally in ways that are consistent with our global aspirations.” Then, Gorgas urges, do not allow removal of infrastructure for “the greenest form of land transportation,” evidently referring to the Adirondack Scenic Railroad and its use of the railroad tracks along the state-owned Remsen-Lake Placid Transportation Corridor. Gorgas then concludes, “Knowledge is power. We all need to seriously educate ourselves, research, read, experiment and, most of all, listen.”

Mr. Gorgas urges New York state to support Amtrak service like Vermont, but New York state already supports Amtrak Adirondack passenger service to Saratoga Springs, Fort Edward, Whitehall, Ticonderoga, Port Henry, Westport, Port Kent and Plattsburgh, with local transit shuttle service available to Glens Falls, Lake George and Lake Placid (https://www.amtrak.com/adirondack-train, https://www.dot.ny.gov/divisions/operating/opdm/passenger-rail/passenger-rail-service/adirondack-service).

If we are to follow Mr. Gorgas’ guidance, we should examine his unsubstantiated claim that ASR service to the Tri-Lakes region would be the “greenest form of land transportation.”

By “green,” does Mr. Gorgas mean “lowest in emission of smog-forming pollutants” such as carbon monoxide (“https://www.epa.gov/co-pollution”>https://www.epa.gov/co-pollution), nitrogen oxides (https://www.epa.gov/no2-pollution), sulfur dioxide (https://www.epa.gov/so2-pollution) and particulate matter (https://www.epa.gov/pm-pollution)? Following passage of the Clean Air Act in 1970, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulated emission of smog-forming pollutants from cars and trucks, with “new passenger vehicles 98-99% cleaner for most tailpipe pollutants compared to the 1960s” (https://www.epa.gov/transportation-air-pollution-and-climate-change/accomplishments-and-success-air-pollution-transportation).

On the other hand, EPA first regulated emission of smog-forming pollutants for diesel locomotives in 1997, with more-stringent standards adopted in 2008 (https://www.dieselnet.com/standards/us/loco.php, https://www.epa.gov/regulations-emissions-vehicles-and-engines/regulations-emissions-locomotives). ASR’s locomotives were built in the 1950s and ’60s, decades before emissions-control technology was even invented. These soot-belching monsters are arguably the least green form of land transportation available.

The soot (particulate matter) from these locomotives may elicit nostalgic feelings for some, but it is associated with serious risks such as non-fatal heart attacks, irregular heartbeat, premature death in people with heart or lung disease, aggravated asthma, decreased lung function, increased respiratory symptoms such as irritation of the airways, and coughing or difficulty breathing (https://www.epa.gov/pm-pollution/health-and-environmental-effects-particulate-matter-pm#targetText=Health%20Effects&targetText=Numerous%20scientific%20studies%20have%20linked,irregular%20heartbeat).

This risk extends to people riding in rail cars behind a diesel locomotive, for whom “levels of certain airborne pollutants are up to nine times higher in train cars directly behind diesel locomotives than on a busy city street” (https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/02/170208111547.htm).

However, that’s not the whole story. We should all be concerned about the quantity of carbon dioxide emitted from our transportation and its impact on global climate change. Mr. Gorgas is correct that a railroad can be a very good form of transportation for people interested in minimizing their carbon footprint.

But a railroad is not always best in terms of its carbon footprint. As discussed by the Union of Concerned Scientists in their online brochure, “Getting There Greener,” traveling by rail is often not better than other forms of transportation. In their “Vacation Traveler Carbon Guide,” they found that for two people traveling 100 to 1,000 miles for a vacation, driving a “typical car” is the next-best option to taking a train. For a family of four, driving a “typical car” or “typical SUV” was rated better than traveling by train (https://www.ucsusa.org/sites/default/files/legacy/assets/documents/clean_vehicles/greentravel_slick_opt_web.pdf). This information was published in 2008, before high-efficiency hybrid vehicles were widely available.

ASR in the Adirondacks would not be a typical train in terms of its carbon efficiency. Diesel locomotive fuel consumption is generally measured in “gallons per mile,” not “miles per gallon,” and that translates into lots and lots of carbon emission. A locomotive is designed to transport hundreds of people, and it must carry lots of people to be carbon-efficient. Did ASR ever carry a hundred or more passengers through Saranac Lake? A half-dozen or fewer passengers? A fuel-guzzling, carbon-belching ASR in the Tri-Lakes may be the least carbon-efficient way to transport a small number of passengers.

Would more people ride a 140-mile ASR from Utica to Lake Placid? The longest-distance non-freight tourist train in the nation is 67.5 miles, not much longer than ASR’s current 62.6 miles from Utica to Big Moose. The evidence shows that people are not willing to spend all day gazing out the window of a train wheezing along at 30 miles per hour.

“Look(ing) at the whole picture,” many daunting questions face ASR and their advocates, such as whether ASR even qualifies as “transportation,” ASR’s financial health, how much it would cost taxpayers if revenues from an extended ASR fail to cover their expenses, and the year-round economic value to the region of a rail trail that would bring many visitors to buy lodging, meals and entertainment. ASR has little basis to advocate for rail service north of Big Moose, which is itself only an occasional ASR destination.

Rather than face these very serious questions, ASR advocates have focused on unsubstantiated claims that an extended ASR would be “green.” However, ASR locomotives are soot-belching, carbon-belching monsters that do not qualify as “green.” “Greenest form of land transportation?” Um, no — maybe “dirty brown.”

Kids, Keith Gorgas is right that “knowledge is power.” Mr. Gorgas (and Gov. Cuomo), the Adirondack Scenic Railroad is not “green.”

David Banks is a former resident of Lake Clear and former board member of Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates. He now lives in Rockville, Maryland.