Train is no match for trail

In his commentary, “Borg over Connors,” Ed Kanze admits that he dated himself. Well, if he can do it, so can I.

My memories of the 1970s, of course, include Borg and Connors and their combined career winnings of more than $10 million. Meanwhile, the nation’s railroads were going broke because, among other problems, they were still required to provide service on branch lines through thin territory. Being required to service a handful of customers through 100 miles of wilderness was somewhat equivalent to a singles player having to cover the doubles court.

I’m not quite sure how Ed named Phil Gallos to be “umpire” of this match. Phil seemed to only want to scare everyone with the specter of the rail corridor reverting to wilderness – even though the unit management plan states categorically that it will remain a travel corridor. Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates has repeatedly said it would like to see a joint Department of Transportation / Department of Environmental Conservation committee in the umpire’s chair so that, better late than never, the corridor UMP can be reviewed. Lacking that, I will keep the match going with my own steady “baseline” replies to Ed Kanze.

When the then-bankrupt Penn Central Railroad finally abandoned the Adirondack Division in 1972, the Tupper Lake Free Press editorialized, “in all honesty, we fail to see where’s there much justification for requiring the Penn Central to continue a service that has long lost any real significance to the economy of the area.” Ten years before, at the first abandonment hearings, it was noted that maintenance had for many years been “at a dead minimum.”

In other words, the New York Central gave up on this line at least 60 years ago for the compelling reason that there was no longer any demand for freight or passenger service between Remsen and Lake Placid. Since 1972, more than 15,000 miles of additional rail mileage has been abandoned in the Northeast. I don’t think I’m far off when I say that much of this subsequently abandoned 15,000 miles would have to be restored to service before it would be economical to restore the Adirondack Division.

Ed’s statistics show an overall energy efficiency for rail passenger travel. However, the difference in energy use is not huge and only happens when hundreds of passengers ride on each train. Today, just one more person in each car would pretty much even the difference, and future mandated improvements in automotive fuel efficiency will further reduce rail’s advantage.

I don’t see any future “landscape-blighting parking lot from Lake Placid to Old Forge,” the nightmare scenario that Ed Kanze has envisioned if we don’t restore rail service. Even with the train, however, nearly every visitor would leave the station in a rental car to get to trailheads, other attractions and accommodations. Does it make any difference if the parked car is a rental or one’s own?

The Grand Canyon Railway annually brings in around 200,000 of the Park’s 2 million visitors. Because all of the popular sights and services are within 5 miles of the train station, a simple shuttle bus system provides visitors with complete access. By contrast, Adirondack attractions and services are much too spread out to be so easily accessed by any means other than private cars. For a few weeks in February 1980, the driving ban and the extensive Olympic shuttle bus system made train travel to Lake Placid feasible, but neither the Winter Olympics nor a driving ban are ever likely to happen again.

In 1900, the Adirondack Division of the New York Central did indeed do a “brisk business.” When competing against horse and wagon, the iron horse won every match 6-0, 6-0, 6-0. The poorer travelers rode coach, richer ones rode Pullman, and the richest had their own private cars. The grandchildren of the richest now have their private jets, and the rest of us arrive in whatever vehicle our finances permit.

If there really is such a demand for passenger rail service, why does the Adirondack, running between the major cities of Montreal, Albany and New York (total population over 10 million), only carry enough passengers to barely cover 50 percent of its operating costs? (Source: Robert Puentes, Adie Tomer and Joseph Kane, Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program, “A New Alignment: Strengthening America’s Commitment to Passenger Rail,” Appendix B, March 2013) It will surely be a very long time before a corridor starting at Utica, population 62,000, and serving a population of barely 12,000 (Lake Placid, Saranac Lake, Tupper Lake and Old Forge, as per Wikipedia) could possibly support profitable passenger rail service.

So while we are waiting for some undetermined time when rail service would again be practical, let’s put this valuable public asset to some other good use. A trail will preserve the road bed for any future rail use while also attracting new visitors. ARTA definitely envisions that summer use, at least the longer sections, would primarily be for bicycling and not hiking. Likewise, winter use will primarily be by snowmobiles as the long, flat, straight profile of the corridor is not that appealing to skiers.

Finally, ARTA has said that we will respect the call of the umpire when the UMP review is complete. Assuming the corridor is converted to a trail, we will have to make sure that succeeding generations are reminded that trail users are only “borrowing” this resource and must likewise respect the call of some future umpire who says it’s time to put the rails back. To date, there have been only a few short rail “reactivations,” but those have happened with a minimum of resistance. And as long as the road bed has been maintained, restoring the tracks will not be all that more expensive because even now most ties (based on the Big Moose upgrade) would have to be replaced.

If Ed wants to portray ARTA and its supporters as “brash upstarts” like Jimmy Connors, that’s fine. We’ll accept the rail supporters as Bjorn Borg – not the five-time Wimbledon champion, however, but the Bjorn Borg who tried a comeback in 1991 using a wooden racket.

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