A hard look at rail/trail figures

Advocates of converting the Adirondack Scenic Railroad to a trail have made quite a number of claims about how it would be cheaper to create this trail than to restore it as a railroad. Let’s look at what some actual numbers might be.

Interestingly, we get some of the best numbers from a report by a trail consulting company, Camoin Associates. This report, originally commissioned by AdkAction.org and currently available through the Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates, has estimates from 2010 for the cost of converting or rebuilding the segment between Tupper Lake and Lake Placid, a distance of 34 route miles. This report has a great deal of information, including the following numbers in regard to the cost of trail conversion, here broken down to a per-mile figure:

-Railroad rehabilitation: $320,000 per mile

-Permanent trail conversion: $440,000 per mile

-Temporary trail conversion: $550,000 per mile.

The principle difference in the temporary vs. permanent trail conversion is an estimate of the cost of storing the track material for 10 years. It does not include the cost of reinstalling this material.

It is notable that the cost of the permanent trail conversion does include a credit for the salvage or resale of track material. This reduces the cost of the trail conversion by about $41,000 per mile, making the actual cost about $481,000 per mile.

Speaking of rail salvage brings up the clams made by some trail advocates that “the salvage of the rail will pay for the trail.” As we can see above, that’s not quite true, at least as allowed by Camoin.

But let’s not be satisfied with that. Let’s see what we do have.

First, let’s figure out the tonnage in steel we have for this 34-mile stretch of track. We have the rails, obviously, and I happen to know that it’s a combination of sections weighing 105 pounds per yard and 90 pounds per yard. But I don’t know the proportion, so we’ll be generous and assume it is all 105-pound-per-yard sections.

Thirty-four miles times two (two rails), times 1,760 (yards per mile), times 105 equals 12,566,400 pounds, which would be 6,283 American (short) tons.

Then there are about 3,200 ties per mile, each with two tie plates weighing about 30 pounds each, plus eight spikes weighing about three-quarters of a pound each. More fiddling there comes to 7,180,800 pounds. That’s another 3,590 short tons.

There are probably multiple tracks in here at some locations, plus the weights of the joint bars and their bolts, we’ll just fudge that with another 10 percent; let’s round the whole thing up to 11,000 short tons.

What’s all that worth? Those 11,000 U.S. (short) tons work out to a rounded 9,980 metric tonnes, and as of a month ago, that would have brought $394 per tonne, or about $3,932,000. That’s a bit less than $116,000 per mile, and well over Camoin’s estimate of $41,000 per mile, but it still is only 24 percent of the cost of the trail.

And, I might add, the large spread between these figures here and Camoin’s estimate suggests the price I had to work with was with this rail delivered to a scrap mill. The last time I looked, rail was inanimate; it’s not going to get up and walk there on its own. Figure a scrap man will want at least half of this to get the rail delivered and make a profit, and then you are looking at a measly 12 percent of your trail cost (which comes in line with what Camoin allowed).

Of course, the cost of conversion isn’t the only thing to keep in mind. This trail, or the railroad, will require maintenance. The Camoin study uses a low but fairly realistic estimate of $1,500 per mile to do the things you need to keep the trail open. This is a bit higher than the averaged $1,324 per mile the railroad has received for the entire 119-mile long corridor. Both numbers are, in my opinion, pretty realistic, although it might be argued that the railroad has not been adequately reimbursed for its track maintenance (which is the arrangement it currently operates under). These numbers are in the range for the maintenance of a secondary road, which brings up an important point: Much of what you have to pay for for infrastructure like this is the supporting structure: drainage ditches, bridge painting and repair, culvert clearing, tunnel maintenance where you have those, and in the Adirondacks, dealing with beavers. The cost of maintaining what I call the superstructure or running surface – track for the railroad, whatever is the paving surface of road or trail – is relatively minor and certainly is the same in any given location for a similar structure.

All of this suggests that, financially at least, the trail and the railroad are at best a wash, with an actual capital advantage going to the railroad.

Now that’s not the only metric we might want to use, and the trail people will rightly claim that we might want to look at what benefits, including economic growth we might get from the trail, but that will have to be for another time.

David P. Lubic lives in Inwood, W.Va.


Adirondack Rail Corridor Economic Impact Study (Camoin & Associates), pages 8-16, accessed April 3, 2014: www.thearta.org/Camoin percent20Rail-Corridor-Report.pdf

International Scrap Register, No. 1 HMS (heavy melting steel), East Coast, prices dated March 4, 2014, accessed April 3, 2014: www.scrapregister.com/scrap-prices/united-states/260