Without railway, tour groups leave

(Editor’s note: This was submitted to the New York State Department of Transportation as testimony on the fate of the Adirondack railway corridor.)

This letter is to strongly support the retention of the Adirondack rail corridor to Lake Placid for rail use, with shared trail usage permitted where safety permits. I will be out of the country over the dates of the hearings on this issue in September, so I submit this in lieu of in-person testimony.

My company, Rail Travel Adventures (earlier doing business as Rail Travel Center), has been bringing groups to the Lake Placid and Thendara regions to ride the railway for more than 20 years. We typically stay two to three nights in each area, bringing 40 to 45 passengers and buying 25 to 30 hotel rooms each night, plus meals, sightseeing admissions and bus charters from New York state operators. In the absence of the railways, none of these tours would operate.

As an example, our October 2012 tour stayed two nights in Lake Placid, and three nights in the Blue Mountain Lake-Thendara area. We utilized 25 rooms at the Golden Arrow Lakeside Resort in Lake Placid and at the Minnowbrook “great camp” in Blue Mountain Lake, visiting the Olympic attractions, High Falls Gorge, the Wild Center, Sagamore and the Adirondack Museum, cruising on Raquette Lake and buying meals from restaurants in Lake Placid, Tupper Lake, Thendara, North Creek and Blue Mountain Lake. We rode the Adirondack Scenic Railroad at both Lake Placid (to Saranac Lake) and at Thendara (to Otter Lake) and rode the new Saratoga and North Creek Railroad. We used the state-supported Adirondack Amtrak service from Albany to Plattsburgh en route to the Park.

Revenue from just this one tour specifically directed to Adirondack businesses was more than $71,000. This does not include client spending for drinks, souvenirs and some meals not otherwise included in the package. Forty-four passengers were on this tour departure. This is an example of just one tour from one company, tours that are offered because of the rail travel option. My company is not unique in offering such products, but there are countless other destinations we could visit if New York made the Adirondacks inaccessible for railway tourism. To repeat, in the absence of the railway, none of this would have occurred.

The advocates for trail use only of the corridor present a hypocritical and grossly selfish proposal. Claims that hundreds of thousands of potential hikers and snowmobilers would be drawn to a rail trail on the corridor verge on the ludicrous. The railway corridor is already open to snowmobilers each winter. The state already offers more than 1,000 miles of wonderful hiking trails in the Adirondacks. By comparison, the railway corridor will be for hikers a long, flat and generally uninteresting walk through the woods. And of course it can absolutely be jointly used. The roadbed is wide enough in most places to accommodate trail use. Given the infrequency of any future scheduled trains (two to three per day represents a rational guess), bridges could be shared (as they already are during snowmobile-ski season). There are many examples of shared rail-trails in both the U.S. and the U.K. A good example is the Cumberland, Md., Western Maryland Scenic Railroad and trail. It is critical to emphasize that the corridor already permits joint use, as a railway in warm months and a snowmobile trail in the winter.

And the claim that reuse of the in-place rails would pay for the trail is completely false. The rails are very old, are mostly made to a design unique to routes of the former New York Central Railroad that was not used elsewhere in the U.S., and would be valuable only to be melted down as scrap steel (or donated to some other preservation railway on former New York Central lines). In any event, it is certain that no serious market exists for anything above minimum scrap value for such elderly rail. But most of the rails can continue to be used for light/moderate-density train traffic on the line. What the track most needs is the immediate renewal/replacement of ties and the leveling/surfacing of the roadbed, plus repairs to bridges that would also be required for trail use. And this work has already been done from Utica to Big Moose and from Saranac Lake to Lake Placid. It is ridiculous to squander this work when the line is in active use, serving thousands of visitors each season.

The removal of the track ends forever any possible use of the corridor for real and expanded public transport. The railway heroically served the 1980 Winter Games, when the roads were virtually paralyzed. Already tens of thousands ride every year on the Utica-to-Thendara segment (and between Saranac Lake and Lake Placid), and connections and through service onto Amtrak at Utica are possible. The repair of the track from Big Moose to Saranac Lake would restore a remarkably useful line into the heart of the High Peaks. Direct service from New York City to Lake Placid could resume from the first day track repairs were completed. Pullman rail has active plans for just such a service, and the Amtrak-Adirondack Scenic Railroad connection at Utica is already active. There will be no walkers doing any such trek!

Further, as the efforts of the Saratoga and North Creek Railroad to revive freight service northwest of North Creek have shown there could be freight use of the corridor again as well. Immediately fuel oil, road salt and timber could/should be moved by train if the tracks were open through to Lake Placid. But if the rails are removed, these possibilities will clearly never happen. With the certainty of global warming, it is madness to remove an intact railway (needing only quite easy repairs) in favor of more auto usage to bring walkers and snowmobilers to a “trail” when they have countless already available options for hikes and when snowmobilers who can already use the line for half the year.

The Adirondack rail corridor must remain what it was built to be, a railway. Within reason it can be shared with walkers and responsible snowmobilers, but it must be retained as a transportation asset.

Carl H. Fowler is president of CHF Rail Consulting LLC, doing business as Rail Travel Adventures, of Williston, Vt.