Spontaneous generation of a railroad — another discredited theory

An important history lesson in science involves the story of “spontaneous generation.” For many hundreds of years, people believed that simple life forms such as fly larvae or worms could emerge spontaneously from filth or exposed meat, without prior invasion of those species. In the 19th century, the scientist Louis Pasteur conducted a series of experiments that convincingly disproved that theory.

We are hopefully nearing the end of a similar controversy in the Adirondacks. Commercial railroad service along the corridor from Old Forge to Lake Placid shriveled and died many decades ago, and the state of New York in 1996 allowed local train advocates a five-year opportunity to reconstitute rail service along this corridor, primarily through private investment.

For more than 16 years, the region has waited eagerly for rail service to emerge as promised by those rail advocates, and the state has spent many millions of dollars to maintain and improve the corridor for rail service. There are no investors, and the only rail activity along this corridor has been the small, seasonal tourist train that few consider helpful to our economy, particularly given that the tracks limit the snowmobile season. Most of the ties are now disintegrated, and the old, rusty rails are supported primarily by the hopes and dreams of the region’s few remaining ardent rail enthusiasts.

Those rail advocates now claim that if we allow them more time, and if the state provides a few more tens of millions of dollars, economically self-sufficient rail services will emerge – perhaps arising from the morning mist over Rollins Pond. If we have not witnessed spontaneous generation of rail service along this corridor over the past 16 years, can the purveyors of those unrealized dreams credibly argue that they can make it happen now?

With only 30,000 people living along the corridor from Old Forge to Lake Placid, a stagnating pulp business and no significant mineral deposits along this corridor, there is no foreseeable potential for mass movement of freight between the Tri-Lakes region and the small city of Utica, where the line originates.

This rail corridor also offers nothing for tourism transportation. The vast majority of our tourists come from the populous eastern seaboard of the U.S., or from Canada. There’s no efficient rail-based route for those travelers that goes anywhere near Utica. Passenger rail service along this corridor is no more viable than freight rail service, but would cost nearly as much to reconstitute because either would require many tens of millions of dollars from the state to restore the old rail infrastructure, and many tens of millions more dollars to acquire newer rolling stock, maintain the rail infrastructure and rolling stock, and pay for fuel, batteries, insurance, employee wages and benefits, utilities, snow removal and the many other substantial expenses of any rail operation.

Recently, rail advocates have talked about various other rail services, generally involving parallel or perpendicular trails. All these ideas are based on the rail service meaningfully benefitting the region and justifying costs that would approach those of freight or passenger rail service. This business model of rails with trails is very rare, and there’s no evidence that it would work here. Further, any year-round rail service would preclude any snowmobile use of the corridor, which brings very substantial economic activity to the region.

On the other hand, there are hundreds of examples nationwide of inexpensive recreational trails on old rail beds that have drawn tourists and revitalized communities. The cover story for the September 2013 issue of Outside Magazine is entitled, “America’s Best Towns, 18 perfect places to live.” Park City, Utah was named “2013 Best Town Ever.” They cited their winter sports, Olympic Training Center and summer recreational activities, which include Utah’s Historic Union Pacific Rail Trail State Park.

The runner-up was Greenville, S.C. Quoting the article, “Voters lauded the parks and greenways, particularly the 18-mile Swamp Rabbit Trail – a virtual pedestrian superhighway – and the strong cycling and running communities.” Numerous other communities were cited for their recreational trails, such as Spokane’s 37-mile Centennial Trail, Carbondale, Colo.’s 44-mile Rio Grande Trail, Chicago’s 18-mile Lakefront Trail and Little Rock’s 34-mile Arkansas River Trail.

The Adirondacks can compete with any other region for national attention as a recreational destination or healthy place to live. We have an Olympic Training Center and Olympic venues, and World Cup winter sports events. We have world-class downhill and cross-country skiing, world-class snowmobiling, more than 3,000 lakes and ponds and 30,000 miles of rivers and streams, great mountains and hiking trails, the Lake Placid Ironman Triathlon, the three-day Adirondack Canoe Classic canoe race and countless other major athletic competition events.

The Adirondack Rail Trail will physically tie together these many disparate elements, extending from Lake Placid through Saranac Lake, Tupper Lake and points south to Old Forge, enabling year-round safe recreation and local travel off of public roadways. Bikes on this trail can carry or tow any recreational gear needed for a wilderness adventure, negating any use for an excursion train. The Adirondack Rail Trail can represent the foundation for a regional public relations effort to help people nationwide recognize the Adirondack region as a recreational destination without equal and the best place in the U.S. to live a healthy lifestyle.

The state of New York will conduct public hearings in Old Forge (today), Ray Brook (Sept. 10), Utica (Sept. 16) and Tupper Lake (Sept. 17), and written comments can be submitted by Sept. 25 to nystravelcorridor@dot.ny.gov or mailed to Raymond F. Hessinger, NYSDOT, 50 Wolf Road, POD 54, Albany, NY 12232. This is our opportunity to do something really meaningful with this state-owned corridor to benefit our economy. Please let them know that you don’t believe in spontaneous generation of railroads and you support the Adirondack Rail Trail.

David Banks lives in Lake Clear and is a member of ARTA’s board of directors.