ANCA’s train wreck

The recent commentary from the Adirondack North Country Association, “It should not be about rails vs. trails,” sets forth ANCA’s position in favor of restoring rail service through the Adirondacks along the Remsen-Lake Placid corridor.

ANCA continues to insist we can have both rails and trails, but their stance has changed in interesting ways in recent months. Previously ANCA had repeated, almost as a mantra, that we can have both a rail and rail trail, side-by-side in this single track corridor through the heart of the Adirondacks. Now they acknowledge that a rail and a trail (a 90-mile rail trail) are not really possible in the same corridor. Instead, they are now speculating vaguely about creating spur trails that will somehow hook up with the railroad. In other words, we can have “a railroad and related trails”-whatever that means-and everybody will be happy.

The state decided seventeen years ago to try to find people who would invest their money to restore commercial rail service along the corridor. That did not occur. The existing rail infrastructure has been obsolete for many decades; it is severely deteriorated and of essentially no value as a foundation for restoring commercial rail service. What’s more, passenger service would serve only a handful of very small communities; it would be infrequent, inconvenient, and involve very slow travel (maximum speed 35 mph) along a route that would take passengers significantly out of their way. This same handful of communities is obviously too small to support demand for the millions of pounds of freight per week necessary to sustain commercial freight rail service. Of course, this freight would not include perishables, other time-demand items, or freight coming from any direction other than the southwest.

The corridor in question could reasonably be described as “near-abandoned.” Currently, its primary use over most of its length is for spraying chemical herbicides in environmentally sensitive areas at state expense. There will be no investor-driven rail use of the corridor, and certainly none that provides meaningful economic development for the region. Instead, every rail use of the corridor recently envisioned by the ANCA train boosters (freight, passenger, overnight Pullman service, long-distance tourist train) would be contingent upon the state spending hundreds of millions of dollars with negligible economic benefits to the region. This level of public expenditure to indulge the dreams of a handful of train hobbyists, under the guise of “economic development,” is reckless and irresponsible beyond imagining.

ANCA, however, is no longer discussing commercial rail service along this corridor. They are no longer pretending we can have both train service and a parallel recreation trail. Instead, the only rail use discussed in their latest announcement is “for recreational access, moving people and their kayaks, canoes, mountain bikes and other gear to launch points and trailheads along the corridor.” What can they be thinking? Paddlers can now drive to all these put-in points, at their convenience, with their canoes and kayaks on top of their cars. Why would they want to access these places from a train and be tied to the train schedule for going and coming?

Using a huge diesel locomotive and heavy rail cars to deliver a few canoes and a few paddlers to Hitchins Pond (for example) makes as much sense as for taxpayers to buy an 18-wheel diesel tractor-trailer to deliver marshmallows to campers at Fish Creek Ponds, our state-owned campground.

ANCA seems to think it is shameful for anybody to challenge the train enthusiasts’ control of this corridor. They have evidently lost sight of the fact that this corridor is a valuable, state-owned asset that should be used in whatever manner best serves the residents of and visitors to the Adirondacks.

The time has passed for nostalgia, pipe dreams, hollow arguments, and blind opposition to progress. Train advocates have had many years to develop this corridor, and they have failed to do so. Conversion of the mostly unused rail bed between Lake Placid and Old Forge into a popular recreational trail offers huge economic and health benefits to the region, at negligible expense to taxpayers. The structure for the state review process is already in place.

It’s high time for the state to step in and adjudicate this matter.

David Banks lives in Lake Clear and is a member of the Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates board of directors.