Borg over Connors, rail over trail

Watching the debate rage over the Adirondack Railroad’s future has been like watching a tennis match between (I’m dating myself) Jimmy Connors and Bjorn Borg. On one side, the rip-’em-up, Connors-style advocates strike blow after blow, making their case while dismissing those on the other side of the court as muddle-headed and romantic. The facts are all on their side, they tell us. Pro-train folks should default and let righteousness hold the prize.

The pro-rail folks play like Borg. They’re baseliners. Points are rebutted and others made as the ball is kept in play, point after lengthy point. It drives the rip-up-the-railers mad.

Overseeing it all like an umpire is Phil Gallos. As far as I can tell, he more than anyone sits on the high ground. There he writes thoughtful commentaries, making sure the numbers are honest.

From my seat in Bloomingdale, I watch and ponder. At first I was neutral. Yet as the match has gone to a fourth and fifth set, I’ve come to root for the Borgs. While the other side, which includes esteemed friends and colleagues, claims superiority on the court, the facts that stick in my head say otherwise.

First, the big picture. The nay-saying Connors crew ridicule the Borgs for their dreams of future Adirondack rail travel. It won’t happen, they say. Can’t do. Yet where’s the crystal ball?

According to the U.S. Transportation Energy Data Book for 2009, long-distance rail travel consumes an average of 2,435 BTU of energy per passenger mile compared to 3,538 for automobiles. At a time when fossil fuel supplies are dwindling and we need to make big advances in reducing carbon emissions, rail makes more sense than carting all our visitors to the region on the Adirondack Northway.

The rip-’em-up folks wield a fearsome two-handed backhand, dismissing passenger railroads as a 19th-century anachronism that should be relegated to museums and interpretive signs. Point taken. Yet in response, they serve a 20th-century alternative. Move people here in automobiles, lots of automobiles. Park all those cars in a landscape-blighting chain of parking lots from Lake Placid to Old Forge. Sound futuristic to you? The vision comes straight out of the 1960s.

What we need, many of us are convinced, is neither a long step back to the 19th century nor a regression to the car-crazy 20th. It’s a bold step into the future. If we care about slowing and reversing global climate change, we need to reinvent the Adirondack region as one in which public transportation plays a far larger role than it does today.

If investment in railroads is for impractical dreamers and the dull of wit, don’t tell the Chinese. In 2012 alone they invested $63 billion or thereabouts in their rail system. Thousands of miles of new tracks are in the works. And please, don’t tell Amtrak. America’s passenger rail corporation recently set its eighth ridership record in nine years, carrying 30.2 million passengers. This wasn’t 1880. It was 2011.

Speaking of years, in 1900, when the Adirondack Division of the New York Central Railroad was doing a brisk business, the U.S. population supporting it was 76.2 million. Today it’s more than 300 million. Yet the rip-’em-uppers pontificate that that there’s no hope of rail travel catching on again. I’m not convinced.

It’s been claimed that destroying the current rail line in its less than ideal state and replacing it with a recreational trail would not get in the way of a railroad reclaiming the right of way, if and when that need should arise. I’m skeptical. Would those who push stridently for the recreational trail go quietly into the night when trains want the corridor back? Surely tearing up the rails would make it more difficult and expensive for railroad service to make the comeback it will ultimately make and should make.

More questions. Who would get to use the recreational trail in winter, the snowmobilers or the cross-country skiers? We have a recreational trail now through the Bloomingdale Bog. I skied it once 11 years ago and will never do so again, at least as long as powered sleds rule the corridor. Don’t get me wrong. Fine people use snowmobiles for recreation, and not all skiers are saints. This isn’t an issue of good versus bad. Skiing on a narrow right of way as snowmobiles (some fresh from stops at local watering holes) screaming past you at high speed is neither pleasant nor safe.

In most places where rail trails have been developed, walking opportunities were limited. This is not the case here. In the Adirondacks we have scores of trails totally over 1,500 miles and hundreds of miles of snowmobile routes in addition. Railroads are few. Why demolish a rare and potentially vital link between our 19th-century past and our 21st-century future just to give us another trail accessible only by an antiquated and environmentally backward 20th-century transportation system?

The cost of rehabilitating and maintaining a railroad line is claimed by the anti-rail, hard-serving Connors faction as prohibitively expensive. Expensive, yes, but per mile the costs in money, BTUs and carbon emissions are dwarfed by what’s required to maintain the road network the recreation trail would depend on.

I watched Connors play once and cherish the memory. Still, this time, count me in with the Borgs.

Ed Kanze lives in Bloomingdale.