A fierce debate is underway over the future use of the rail corridor that stretches from Lake Placid to Tupper Lake, and then on to Old Forge and Utica.
An increasingly diverse and high-powered group led by prominent activists Lee Keet, Tony Goodwin, Dick Beamish and Jim McCulley is insisting that the tourist train should be scrapped and replaced by a year-round multi-used trail.
There’s a lot of push-back, naturally, much of it from similarly high-powered folks like Kate Fish, head of the Adirondack North Country Association.
It’s certainly a fair and timely debate to have, and both sides have strong arguments.
Trail supporters say the tourism train is a bust, with few riders and little potential for growth. They say taxpayers should stop subsidizing a boondoggle and they’re convinced the route would flourish as a multi-use trail.
Rail advocates point to the fact that the current state Department of Transportation leadership supports maintaining the railroad. That means the likelihood of more big financial grants for the region, despite New York’s fiscal crisis.
They also continue to maintain hope that the train will attract a growing ridership, once it extends to more scenic areas in Tupper Lake and perhaps beyond.
But as the debate rolls forward, railroad advocates are putting forth one argument that strikes me as far-fetched and a bit of a distraction. Namely the notion that this train route will ever again be a regularly-used travel corridor.
“The railroad is not the enemy. Rather, it is the most cost- and energy-efficient mode of motorized land transport on the planet,” Fish wrote, in a recent commentary for the Adirondack Almanack.
“Looking beyond recreation, it would be tremendously short sighted and a great failure of imagination to remove expensive infrastructure on the only rail corridor coming into the heart of the Adirondacks.”
Which leads to the obvious question:
Does anyone really think it would be viable to operate a year-round industrial-and-passenger railroad through the most remote and rugged terrain in the Northeast — a line, furthermore, that would service only around 20,000 permanent residents?
Canadian Pacific struggles sometimes to keep open their North Country corridor through the Champlain Valley, despite the fact that it connects two of the largest cities on the east coast.
Imagine the difficulties of maintaining a route through the wilderness around Lowes Lake and the Five Ponds Wilderness.
(It’s important to note that much of the route is currently in terrible shape and would require a massive taxpayer investment to refurbish to modern industrial standards.)
And would it really be environmentally appropriate to haul industrial cargoes through some of the most precious backcountry in New York state, over routes that traverse pristine lakes, wetlands and mountain rivers?
Derailments would, of course be inevitable, as anyone in the transport industry would tell you.
In 2004, a train derailed near Ticonderoga and spilled 25,000 gallons of canola oil. Imagine trying to respond to a similar spill in February on the frozen shores of Lake Lila or the Stillwater Reservoir.
It strikes me as perfectly realistic that we might someday want year-round mass-transit service to the Tri-Lakes, as gas prices rise and concerns about carbon pollution grow.
But if that ever becomes desirable and economically feasible, isn’t it far more likely that we would revive the train route north to Malone, or even build an entirely new route to Plattsburgh?
Those projects would be half as long, in terms of mileage, and would run through for more settled and hospitable terrain.
They would also travel in the direction that most Tri-Lakes folk need and want to go, while linking us to the major population centers that are the source of most Adirondack tourists.
(I try to imagine a future traveler from New York City, Montreal or Boston reading a train schedule for reaching Lake Placid — only to discover that they have to detour via Utica. That strikes me as a distinctly tough sell.)
An even cheaper, more appealing and energy-efficient solution would be to simply run a regular bus shuttle from the existing Amtrak train depots in Westport or Plattsburgh into the Tri-Lakes.
None of this, of course, devalues the train-advocate community’s larger arguments about the tourism railroad.
It may be that a seasonal tourist train is the best use for this route, and that the Adirondack Scenic Railroad will eventually serve as a popular attraction and a sustainable economic engine.
But suggesting that the Lake Placid-Old Forge railroad will ever again be a method that average people use to travel and ship their goods — that strikes me as a detour from the real debate that lies before us.