No way to run a railroad

The Adirondack Scenic Railroad has long argued that the state should allow it to operate its tourist train along the full length of the 120-mile, state-owned Remsen-Lake Placid Travel Corridor. This, they say, would cost “only” $15 million for the state to restore infrastructure from Big Moose to Saranac Lake. (State estimates run upward of $43 million.)

Then, in the Adirondack Daily Enterprise’s July 26 coverage of the “minor” derailment of the tourist train outside of Lake Placid, Jim Ellis of the ASR pointed to “the state’s responsibility to maintain the track, which it owns.”

The ASR wants it both ways. On one hand, they claim that the cost to restore the rails and expand their operations would be modest, and they assure us that the restored infrastructure could be used safely for many years. On the other hand, the ASR has just gone off the tracks along a section of the corridor that was restored in recent years and is supposed to be in relatively good condition. The ASR pays the state only $1 per year to use this valuable state land and rails, the state pays the ASR more than $150,000 per year for track maintenance, the ASR’s deficient monitoring and maintenance of the tracks results in a derailment, and the ASR responds by suggesting that the state has failed to maintain the rail infrastructure. Is this any way to run a railroad?

As Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates frequently points out, the costs of expanded ASR operations would be substantial – far in excess of the costs of restoration – and many of those costs would fall on taxpayers. In addition to millions of public dollars to restore the line, the ASR also expects the state to pay the substantial costs of maintaining the rail infrastructure along the full length of the corridor, in perpetuity.

As shown by Saturday’s derailment, maintaining a rail line is not an optional or trivial cost. A rail line must be maintained within small fractions of an inch, through heat, storm, freeze and thaw, under the stress of incredibly heavy and powerful locomotives. These costs should be carefully considered by the state, as should the lack of demand and absence of any need for restoring train service through the Adirondack Park.

Of more immediate concern, this derailment points to the need for closer monitoring of the Adirondack Scenic Railroad by the state Department of Transportation. While this latest derailment did not result in serious injury, it shows that these deficiencies must be addressed if the ASR is to operate safely in the future. Of even greater concern is that the ASR occasionally moves rolling stock between Old Forge and Saranac Lake. The infrastructure along that section of corridor is severely deteriorated, with rotten ties and eroded rail bed. The risks of derailment appear substantial and would be greatest in places like the Lake Colby causeway, where a derailment would be a disaster.

To avoid future mishaps, we call on DOT to take on a more active role in regulating the Adirondack Scenic Railroad. We also call on DOT to prevent the ASR from operating between Saranac Lake and Old Forge if the risks of derailment are significant.

As for alternative uses of the corridor, the Adirondack Rail Trail appears to be the only truly productive option for the Lake Placid-Old Forge section. This year-round, multi-use trail for bicyclists, walkers, joggers and snowmobilers would bring far more tourists and their dollars to our region, at far lower cost to taxpayers. We look to the state to make this happen, the sooner the better.

We also hope that the Enterprise will do a follow-up article in which hard questions are asked about track maintenance and the safety implications of poorly monitored and inadequately maintained rail infrastructure.

David Banks is a resident of Lake Clear and a board member of Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates.