Yes, we need rail service to Lake Placid

We clearly need to rethink intercity trains in this country, but services like Amtrak’s are drained of capital trying to maintain old, no longer needed or used routes.

For example, it took years for the New York Central Railroad (pre-Amtrak) to get permission to shed its Utica-to-Lake Placid dead-end service after making repeated requests based on negligible demand for either passenger or freight service on that route. Now some claim that if we rebuild it, people will use it to access our Olympic and tourist center at Lake Placid as well as the other Tri-Lakes towns.

This is a noble goal, as we all agree that tourism is the economic engine of our communities. And if people really want to get here by train and we can get them here without draining our tax dollars, we should do so, in my opinion. But rebuilding a decrepit dead-end line from Utica to Lake Placid may not be the way to achieve that goal.

Many do not realize that, right now, you can buy a ticket at www.amtrak.com from Penn Station in New York City to Lake Placid. The ride takes just under seven hours, including a final half-hour or so by shuttle from Westport, and costs $99. But there is only one train per day.

The NYC-to-Albany-Rensselaer service has hourly trains, and the ticket is only $41, a cost of roughly 28 cents per mile. And at two-and-a-half hours for the 150 miles covered, the average speed is 60 mph. Contrast that to the train to Westport that then connects to Lake Placid. The second 150 miles costs 40 percent more and takes roughly twice as long. It makes very little sense that the densely populated area between New York City and Albany should have such poor and limited service north of Albany to Montreal.

Even if that one train a day maintained its 60 mph average speed after Albany, the trip to Westport would be four-and-a-half hours and the total travel time to Lake Placid just over five hours. And while we are speculating about improved service, why only 60 mph? Travel times between much smaller cities than New York and Montreal – e.g., Paris and Lyon, France, which is exactly the same distance as from New York to Montreal – are UNDER TWO HOURS. (The New York-to-Montreal trip takes 11 hours on the same train that stops in Westport, six times as long as the Paris-to-Lyon run!) One big reason we do not have five-hour service to Lake Placid is that much of the line north of Albany is a single track, and passenger trains must pull onto Howard’s siding to avoid oppositely headed freight trains, sometimes with very long wait times.

So when it comes to where we really need higher-speed train service, like on the New York-to-Montreal line, the argument always is that we cannot afford to upgrade the tracks or equipment, build parallel tracks to avoid sidings, and so on. While we seem to have no money for an existing, heavily used freight line that could, if upgraded, also carry many more passengers, how can we ask the state to restore service to Lake Placid from Utica? The cost of doing that, $50 million in 2014 dollars (New York State Department of Transportation’s 2008 estimate of $43 million adjusted for inflation), is justified on the speculation that this route would be used enough to justify such expense. But why would anyone spend $50 million on a dead-end route that went out of business due to lack of demand twice, has been unused for 42 years, with no study supporting the premise that freight or passengers would use it, when that $50 million could be put into improving service on the line that already exists?

The opponents of converting the line between (at least) Old Forge and Saranac Lake to a recreation trail keep asking why the trail advocates and the train advocates can’t get together to agree that somehow we can have both. I say we can. Let’s press for better service on the line that we have and make better use of the line that we abandoned 42 years ago. Let’s ask Gov. Cuomo to first spend whatever money he has for better rail service on the Albany-Montreal route, to eliminate sidelined passenger trains and to add more scheduling options. Let’s set a goal of five hours from New York City to Lake Placid, with at least three trains a day, a very attainable goal as this does not involve fancy high-speed trains or better tracks, just a parallel track north of Albany. That way we win three ways: better visitor access to our communities, more for them to do when they get here, and a wonderful new “green” recreation and commuting facility for those of us who live here.

Lee Keet lives on Lake Colby near Saranac Lake and is a board member of Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates.