Keep rail in the Tri-Lakes

The recent announcement of the impending unit management plan review for the rail corridor is welcome news, as it will provide a sensible review of competing plans. It is a way to move forward for everyone.

It was, however, disappointing to learn that removing the track north of Tupper Lake was already suggested as a possible outcome. I appreciate that idea in the context of compromise but expect to see the plans fully vetted through the UMP process first, before reaching conclusions. I, for one, feel it is the wrong conclusion.

Think about it – if you take away the railroad’s main market, serving the Tri-Lakes communities, how can you expect it to be successful? The railroad has to serve the entire Tri-Lakes region to succeed and should be expected to be both productive and useful for the community. I think it can meet those standards.

Consider, too, that the best scenery along the line is NORTH of Tupper Lake. It is a spectacular mix of forest, swampy meadows, lake and mountain views that together represent some of the finest scenery within the Park. South of Tupper Lake, by contrast, is all dense forest for miles unending. Railroad critics have observed a lack of similar “good” scenery on the Saranac Lake-Lake Placid segment, and it is probably a fair assessment. Let’s not trade locations and have the same problem.

For the train to prosper, it needs to combine both long-distance travelers, via the Utica connection, with the Tri-Lakes tourist and local market. For the “north end,” anyway, the railroad must be regional. It needs to connect and serve the entire Tri-Lakes region: the Lake Placid, Saranac Lake, Lake Clear and Tupper Lake communities.

There is broad consensus that the south end of the railroad has done well. This is because it has had repaired track to run on and has developed many successful offerings connecting that region’s communities. Why would the Tri-Lakes region be any less viable? I would argue it is a better market. There is every indication that the same railroad success will happen here with repaired track and frankly the railroad has patiently waited for that opportunity to serve, much longer than some other interested groups have.

Consider the challenging times the railroad has worked through: the simply tragic and devastating 9/11 time period, followed by the sinking economy as it really tanked in 2007 forward. Did they survive as robustly as some would like? Sure, it would have been nice to accomplish more. But despite the tough times, they kept it lean, kept serving the community and are still in business when some other businesses did not make it. And they didn’t complain when things didn’t progress as quickly as they hoped for or as others picked on them nonstop. It’s worth keeping those challenging circumstances in mind when naysayers suggest the railroad hasn’t done enough to justify continuing.

The railroad has demonstrated an unfailing commitment to the Tri-Lakes community as a good steward of the property, and it should be congratulated in doing so. Imagine what it could do with a little more community support instead of being second guessed constantly.

Based on my previous experience with the railroad, I submit that a divisionally based and managed rail operation in Tupper Lake, serving the north end of the line and hosting rail traffic from the south, is the most robust rail plan and provides the critical market and focus needed for it to thrive. Service up from Utica is very important, but it can’t be the only business. It needs to be really local. Like any short line, it needs all the business it can get.

The 34 miles between Tupper Lake and Lake Placid is ideal, time-wise, for both daily regular excursion-shuttle service and for dinner trains or special charters. Conversely, being restricted to running south only would double both the mileage and trip time to get to a station and, worse, would not connect the whole Tri-Lakes region, which is so critical. The train can tie the Lake Placid-to-Tupper Lake visitor together most efficiently. It’s my opinion more would be apt to hop a train – if only for the time benefit, to say nothing of relaxing – to see the region more efficiently than if we were to expect the typical Lake Placid visitor to walk the 34 miles to Tupper Lake and then back again to their car. Sure, some would do it, but not many as compared to those that might use the train to fit more of the region into their short visits.

Both local residents and tourists should be able to move fluidly within Tri-Lakes communities – European style, without a car – with the railroad connecting the various towns, trailheads and lakes. It can serve everyone from outdoor enthusiasts with their backpacks, bicycles, bug spray and kayaks, to individuals, families, children, grandparents and the disabled. In short, it will move everyone. Isn’t inclusive transportation for everyone, regardless of their physical nature, what we want for the future?

The Trails Rails Action Committee group proves we can make this work with the trail community. I applaud TRAC members’ efforts in finding a shared solution and their desire to make something happen. Recreation and exercise are important and I share everyone’s frustration at wanting to see more corridor progress. There are plenty of reasons why it has taken so long, but none is good enough to justify changing course midstream and removing the only railroad track in the region. Let’s finish what we started and give the rail-with-trail plan a chance.

We can and must find a way to work together and not at the expense of the other. Great things are happening now in the area, and now is the perfect time to knit the entire Tri-Lakes region fully together with the railroad for everyone’s benefit. There are many good trail alternatives, but none for the railroad. There is only one railroad. Don’t give it up. Keep rail in the Tri-Lakes.

Pete Snyder lives in Irasburg, Vermont.