Freight trains won’t work here

With interest surging and the debate intensifying, it is good that the state of New York has agreed to study the options and update the management plan for its rail corridor between Remsen (north of Utica) and Lake Placid, a distance of 118 miles.

One of the proposed uses for the mostly abandoned, 90-mile section of rail bed between Old Forge and Lake Placid would be as a world-class recreation trail for bicyclists, hikers, walkers, joggers, etc., and for greatly improved snowmobiling in the winter. Studies have shown that converting this stretch of rail corridor to a recreation trail would cost relatively little while providing a powerful economic benefit for the region.

Other proposals call for restoring train service along the entire corridor, including passenger, freight and tourist excursion, with overnight Pullman service thrown in. So how do the rail-restoration proposals compare? Since our space is limited, let’s just look for now at one piece of the railroad proposal – the idea of bringing back freight rail service between Utica and Lake Placid.

Simply stated, the business outlook for moving freight along this corridor is extremely unfavorable. A freight train’s impressive potential efficiency relies upon shipment of many thousands of tons of freight per day, dealing with boxcar-sized loads as a minimum shipping quantity. Freight shipments on that scale would not be achievable here. The 130,000 people living in the Adirondacks are concentrated near the periphery of the Park, and fewer than 30,000 people live anywhere near this 90-mile corridor. There are probably many more beavers along this route than people.

Since rail freight service ended in 1972, restaurant, grocery, pharmacy, hardware and other businesses have built their own rapid-response distribution facilities and systems, geared to our much-improved highways. Freight rail service along this corridor would move slowly from Utica, serving the Tri-Lakes region from only one direction, and there’s no way it could compete for the vast majority of freight business to the region.

According to “The Adirondack Atlas,” there are very few mineral deposits in the region traversed by this corridor. With the recent closure at Newton Falls, the regional outlook for paper mills is hardly encouraging. No other large-scale source of freight from the region is operating or anticipated.

The rail infrastructure on most of the Remsen-Lake Placid corridor is severely deteriorated as a result of age, decades of nonuse and lack of maintenance. Studies agree it would cost tens of millions of dollars to restore that infrastructure to any degree of functionality. Even if that money were spent, the near-century-old rails were not designed to withstand the much heavier loads of modern commercial freight rail traffic. Other improvements would also be needed, such as improved crossings and signals, adding more millions of taxpayer expense to restoring rail infrastructure.

While the aged diesel locomotives held by the Adirondack Scenic Railroad have sufficed for seasonal, short-distance, tourist train duty, they would not be suitable for year-round, longer-distance, heavy-load freight service. Modern diesel locomotives suitable for such service would cost many hundreds of thousands to more than a million dollars each. Many freight rail cars of different types would also be needed.

Ongoing operational costs for freight service along the Remsen-Lake Placid corridor could amount to more millions of dollars per year. The Adirondack Scenic Railroad currently relies heavily on volunteers to staff their tourist-train operations, and they are encountering major staffing challenges. Operation of a year-round, longer-distance freight railroad would require a professional workforce to maintain the infrastructure, service the rolling stock and perform a variety of other skilled functions. Appropriate (and expensive) maintenance and repair facilities do not currently exist along this line. Moreover, a freight-hauling railroad would consume large quantities of fuel, batteries and other supplies and services.

Who wouldn’t love to see a robust freight rail service if it would contribute to the region’s economy? However, the inescapable conclusion is that freight rail service along this corridor could not come close to achieving that goal. It would cost hundreds of millions of dollars to establish and maintain freight rail service on the Remsen-Lake Placid corridor – service for which there is no discernible demand.

Given the bleak outlook for freight volume, it would not be possible to achieve any degree of efficiency or even to cover a significant share of operational costs. Instead, establishing and maintaining freight rail service along this corridor would be an ongoing waste of public resources, with near-empty trains burning fuel and incurring other significant costs while failing to contribute to commerce or economic development in the region.

Additionally, restoring year-round rail service would end snowmobiling in the corridor and preclude popular, non-motorized activities for the other eight months of the year – uses that can produce enormous economic, health and recreational benefits for the communities along the way.

Now it’s up to the state to evaluate all the data and come up with the best solution for this magnificent but sadly underutilized resource.

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