Rails and trails for the Adirondacks

I love trains. In fact, I’m writing this aboard the Cardinal, Amtrak’s overnight train from Chicago to New York, on my way home from a Midwest family visit.

I also love the outdoors, trails, hiking and bicycling. Since I’ve never owned a car, my wife and I regularly travel on trains with our collapsible bikes and backpacks in tow for some outdoor adventure. On a daily basis we bike to almost everything: work, shopping, concerts and friends.

As an architect and preservationist, I’ve devoted much of the last 40 years to designing and developing trails, heritage areas and transit-oriented communities. The trick is balancing our modes of transportation and taking advantage of what we already have in place.

In this regard, I see two excellent opportunities for the Adirondacks. One is converting the mostly unused rail bed from Lake Placid to Old Forge into what could be one of the country’s finest bikeways and all-around recreation trails. The other is the opportunity to capitalize on Amtrak’s Adirondack train between New York City and Montreal.

This classic line, which skirts the eastern Adirondacks, is one of the world’s most scenic railroad trips, following up the Hudson and Champlain valleys. And what a wonderful way to approach the Park!

The problem right now, however, is twofold: This ride is too slow and too infrequent. Currently only one train a day makes the trip, taking up to eight hours to get to Westport from New York. That’s a rather pathetic average of well under 50 mph. Compare this to the French train covering the same distance between Paris and Lyon in one hour and 50 minutes, averaging 200 mph. This is where government funding should be invested if we are ever to catch up with the high-speed rail service currently connecting cities throughout Europe, Japan and almost everywhere else in the developed world.

But even at the laid-back, leisurely pace of today’s Adirondack, this is still a fabulous traveling experience. And much can be done right now to improve service short of instituting high-speed rail. For starters, we need more than one train a day from New York to Montreal. Travelers from south of New York – those coming from Washington, Baltimore, Wilmington and Philadelphia – are discouraged by the uncoordinated timing to the Adirondack schedule, which often requires taking a connecting train in the middle of the night to and from New York City.

For better access to the Adirondacks, we also need to provide an unforgettable shuttle service from Westport and other stations to key interior points such as Lake Placid, Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake. En route, the unique scenery and history of the region can be presented to travelers. This is not a new idea, by the way. Think of the historically themed Red Buses that link the Amtrak station to numerous points in Glacier National Park, making a car-free train trip to the park enormously appealing to travelers.

Amtrak should provide “roll-on, roll-off” facilities for bicycles on all its trains. (Currently, collapsible bicycles are allowed, but full-size bikes are usually prohibited – a lost opportunity for Amtrak and its potential customers.) We must also assure that heritage excursion lines, such as the Saratoga & North Creek Railway and the Adirondack Scenic Railroad operating at the southern end of the Remsen-Placid corridor, make convenient connections to Amtrak trains at Saratoga Springs and Utica.

In addition to fostering better train travel, let’s also utilize the largely abandoned rail line between Lake Placid and Old Forge, which traverses some of the most beautiful wild country in the Northeast. Here the old rail bed can easily and inexpensively be converted into a world-class recreation trail. As such, it will provide a safe, easy “wilderness experience” for bikers, walkers, skiers, snowmobilers and nature lovers of every kind. It can also be utilized by people in wheelchairs, for whom access to an easy, safe trail is now extremely limited.

The Great Adirondack Rail Trail (as its promoters call it) could be a tourist destination of international renown. For local residents, this traffic-free travel corridor with minimal grades would encourage recreation of the most healthful kind and facilitate local travel by means other than motor vehicles. It would be beneficial in every way: economically, environmentally, spiritually and health-wise.

This trans-Adirondack bicycling and walking trail could ultimately link up with a national and international trail system. At its southern end it would connect with the Erie Canalway Trail that runs east-west across the state; at its northern end it would connect with the rail corridor from Lake Clear Junction to Malone and the Canadian border, linking up with the trail and greenway system in Quebec known as la Route verte.

The Adirondack Park has everything going for it but (1) a world-class, multi-use recreation trail and (2) better train access from Montreal, Albany, New York City and points north and south. So let’s invest our energy and resources in a balanced use of rails and trails, a combination that will do the most good for the most people, including residents, visitors and the old and new businesses that will inevitably benefit.

Bob Thomas is a architect and partner in Campbell Thomas & Co., a preservation- and conservation-oriented architectural firm in Philadelphia.


Editor’s note: Regarding Bob Thomas’ statement, “For better access to the Adirondacks, we also need to provide an unforgettable shuttle service from Westport and other stations to key interior points such as Lake Placid, Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake,” Nadym Derghan of Ground Force 1, with offices in Plattsburgh and Lake Placid, pointed out that Amtrak already subsidizes his company to provide daily ground shuttle service between the Westport train station and Lake Placid, via Elizabethtown and Keene. Tickets for this shuttle can be purchased through Amtrak’s website, www.amtrak.com, by entering Lake Placid (LPD) instead of Westport (WSP) as the origin or destination of your trip. Our search showed the shuttle added $25 to the total ticket price.