History, facts argue against railroad

My enduring interest in the best future use of the rail corridor between Lake Placid and Old Forge comes from actually being a rail fan, but as I’ve said before, I’m just not a fan of restoring service on this line.

This commentary is a slightly revised version of the statement I made to the North Country Regional Economic Development Council on Thursday, Feb. 21, at their meeting in Potsdam. Given that Chris Morris’ recent article indicates that the NCREDC may be the agency that decided whether the unit management plan for the rail corridor should be reviewed, I can only hope the council delegates were listening.

I applaud most of the efforts of the North Country Regional Economic Development Council, such as meat and poultry processing facilities, natural gas for International Paper in Ticonderoga and, yes, even the rail improvements to the Massena terminal. However, I and the 10,000-plus members of Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates believe that any effort to spend state funds to further restore rail service on the Adirondack rail corridor is misguided and will not achieve any economic benefits commensurate with the costs. The corridor could be put to a much better use that would actually be a benefit to the North Country’s economy.

When this railroad was built in 1892, the competition was horse-drawn wagons on rutted dirt roads. It did very well for a few years. By the early 1950s, however, the New York Central was already petitioning to end passenger service and in 1962 petitioned for total abandonment. Traffic had dwindled to less than 10 cars per week – hardly enough to justify more than 100 miles of railroad. And this was before the Northway and the many other highway improvements since 1962.

When the Penn Central filed the final abandonment petition in 1972, the Tupper Lake Free Press editorialized that the railroad had not been a part of the local economy for many years and that forcing railroads to continue to operate such money-losing operations had contributed to their overall poor financial condition. I fully recognize that since 1980 there has been a rail “renaissance,” but that has come in large part because railroads could abandon money-losing branch lines through thin territory.

Because this railroad was near and dear, restoration efforts began almost immediately. One positive outcome was the state’s purchase of the entire right of way so that the Penn Central didn’t sell it off piecemeal. The 1980 restoration did provide some useful transportation, with a few trains between Utica and Lake Placid during the Olympics. But neither the Olympics nor a driving ban in Lake Placid are likely to ever happen again.

The 1996 unit management plan that governs the use of the corridor said the rails would remain in place for five years during a “rail marketing period.” Most funding for full restoration (set at either $11 million or $17 million) was supposed to come from private sources. (Early on, the Adirondack Railway Preservation Society even promised to restore the line all the way from Utica to Lake Placid to Class III standard at no cost to the state.) To date, however, the state has invested $35 million without achieving anything close to full restoration. We thus believe the state Department of Transportation’s figure of $43 million for full restoration is accurate and ask whether this North Country Regional Economic Development Council should consider spending half of its state grant money on this one project.

If restored, there does not appear to be any demand for freight, and the recent Stone Consulting study, commissioned by the railroad promoters, makes no mention of freight service. Furthermore, freight service would have to be year-round, which would end snowmobiling on the corridor.

According to a frequent patron of Adirondack Trailways, the demand for public transportation to Lake Placid and Saranac Lake is fewer than five customers per bus run. Rail passenger service would be several hours slower than the bus and take twice the time of driving a car from the New York metropolitan area. There would simply not be enough demand to fill up a daily passenger train sufficiently to make it profitable.

I also do not see that the railroad serves any access points to hiking, biking or paddling not already accessible by road. And aside from the apparently successful canoe shuttle on the Moose River (which would not be affected by ARTA’s plan for a recreational trail), there are no point-to-point trips where a rail shuttle would be helpful.

Let’s also remember that the daily Amtrak train between Montreal and Albany serves a population of 2.5 million, counting the end cities. Yet this train still requires a significant annual subsidy. Utica is a city of only 62,000, and the total population served between there and Lake Placid is only about 13,000. Yes, an operator could probably fill up an occasional excursion train to Lake Placid, but how can that possibly justify the expense of restoring the rails?

Could there possibly be a demand for passenger service in the future should gas prices rise to the often-cited $10 per gallon? Maybe, but I doubt it. I recently spent time in Norway, where gas is $10 per gallon. It cost me more than $100 to fill up a not totally empty Ford Focus. And yet there were plenty of cars on the road, being used for both commuting and recreational travel. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the only collected taxes that steadily increased were federal fuel tax revenues, causing Will Rogers to joke that his would be the first generation to drive to the poor house in their own cars. Once they own cars, people will continue driving.

As for the rail-trail alternative proposed by ARTA, I will simply mention that the Stone study estimated railroad restoration would bring 7,000 new visitors to the area. The low-end estimate in the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy study for attracting new visitors is 70,000, and that doesn’t count the increased snowmobile traffic made possible by a longer season.

Rail trails do work to help local economies, and so will this one if it’s given a chance.

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