Comments on rail trails

As someone who is an avid bicycle rider, cross-country skier and hiker, I want to weigh in on the discussion about the possible conversion of the existing railroad corridor to a multi-use recreational trail.

Regarding cycling, there are two basic types of cyclists: those who are road bikers and those who are off-road or mountain bikers. Mountain bikers like a trail system that has lots of changing terrain and challenging twists and turns. The trail surface should be dirt, and mud is accepted as part of the pleasure of the rides. Most road bikers, on the other hand, prefer paved surfaces and are looking for loop trails or through routes that can be used for commuting or for long-distance travel. Both groups enjoy having good parking and/or amenities near the trails they want to use.

My wife and I have done extensive riding in many parts of the U.S. and elsewhere and have experienced many forms of bike trails. Rail-to-trail conversions like the Warren County trail in the Glens Falls-Lake George area and the Cape Cod Rail Trail are examples of excellent systems. Both are paved; both are in areas where there is a large recreational population and multiple access points. They both also have some interesting terrain along the route as they do not stick just to prior rail routes.

On the other hand, the New York state Erie Canal Trail, the C&O Canal Trail and Le Petit Nord Rail Trail in the Montreal area are unpaved and incredibly flat. We have ridden sections of both of these canal trails and became bored after just 15 miles and sought out nearby roads to complete our rides. The Petit Nord Trail was even more discouraging. Every few miles we had to dismount and work our way around downed trees or other obstructions due to limited maintenance. A flat rail trail near Red Wing, Minn., that is paved is better, but even that one is most enjoyable when used as a loop, using roads for the return trip.

My point here is that if we convert the local rail corridor to a trail to be used for biking, it will need to be paved to make it enjoyable and useful. It is too flat for mountain bikers to enjoy and too long for road bikers to want to use unless paved so it can be ridden at a decent pace.

From a hiking or cross-country ski perspective, a similar argument is true. The loop trails we have such as Henry’s Woods and the traditional Adirondack trails are more interesting because they have variable terrain and offer a round trip as opposed to an out-and-back trip that the rail trail offers.

As a consequence, while discussing the advantages of conversion to a recreational trail sound good, the reality is that this is not likely a big draw, with one exception. It will be a great match for the snowmobile enthusiasts. Removing the rails will make this corridor more snowmobile friendly and will provide a great throughway for them.

On the rail side, the problem is that we are not looking at how to use this corridor in the 21st century. The best use is not for an engine pulling a few cars, whether passenger or freight. A corridor like this needs multiple trips per day for smaller numbers of users. In Europe, they have developed very successful rail routes serving small and rural communities like ours by using single, self-propelled cars on the tracks. Having such service between the towns along the whole route from Utica to Lake Placid could indeed serve a real purpose. I look at some of the bigger issues we face down the road, such as perhaps the need to combine the schools in Tupper Lake, Saranac Lake and Lake Placid into a single district. Using a well-timed rail service between these three communities could allow for speedy and efficient transport of students between the communities.

We should protect the rail corridor, but at the same time we do need to consider a side-by-side trail, especially between Saranac Lake and Lake Placid and near each other community along the route. But don’t expect an economic boon by replacing the rails with a single multi-use trail.

David G. Welch lives in Lake Placid.