Great Train Debate in the Adirondacks defies usual labels

Last night at the Wild Center, we got a taste of just how eclectic and fungible the various factions in the Adirondack Park can be.

The debate centered around the best use of the rail corridor which stretches from Lake Placid to Old Forge.  The referee for the evening was a relatively new group called Adirondack Action.

On one side of the ring you had a weird coalition of train enthusiasts, climate change activists (who think Adirondack railroads will be a real transportation option in the future), Tupper Lake boosters, and chamber of commerce types who hope to win Federal funding for the rail project.

In the other corner, you have an even weirder alliance of snowmobile riders, hikers, cross-country skiers, and bicyclists who think a multi-use trail is a better, cheaper idea.

Seeing snowmobile activist Jim McCulley and cross-country ski booster Tony Goodwin on the same side of any issue is remarkable.  The two have wrangled and litigated over the proper use of the Jackrabbit Ski Trail for decades.

This coalition is rounded out by deficit hawks who don’t want the government to spend more money on tourism trains.

Another vein running through this debate is the growing gap between attitudes in Tupper Lake, where the train remains a kind of cause celebre, and Lake Placid, where interest in the project has cooled.

North Elba town supervisor Roby Politi has suggested that the tourist train is a “boondoggle.”  (Attitudes in Saranac Lake seem to be somewhere in the middle, ranging from mild skepticism to mild excitement.)

How will all this settle out?  I’m guessing the real answer will come in the form of budget priorities, in Albany and Washington.  If there’s taxpayer money to refurbish the train track, the project will probably muddle forward.

But if funding continues to dwindle , the tracks could eventually reach a point where maintaining them — especially the long, vast stretch through the wilderness of the central Adirondacks — makes no sense.

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27 Comments on “Great Train Debate in the Adirondacks defies usual labels”

  1. verplanck says:

    It will be next to impossible to convert a rail trail back to railroad tracks…I say keep the lines in place and find a use for them. There are plenty of other spaces to fit in more ATV/snowmobile/XC ski trails.

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  2. Those coalitions may seem “weird” in a world of absolutes, but there are many places in the ADK’s where seemingly disparate interest find common cause.
    In the Inlet-Old Forge area, for instance, we find mountain bikers and sled dog mushers continually praising the Barnstormers Snowmobile Club for all the work they do to keep multi-use trails open.
    Without dedicated volunteers such as those many trails simply would not be passable. And given where we’re heading with DEC budgets, communities must depend on these coalitions more and more.

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  3. Paul says:

    I tend to side with the boondoggle types, but here I have another pitch. I lived for a bunch of years in Colorado and experienced the thrill of being left by the narrow gauge railroad in the middle of a place called Chicago Basin. There you are 30 miles from the nearest road. There we hiked for 5 days and then flagged down the train to take us back to Silverton and civilization.

    For this train, if it could be fully restored (and maybe that is a pipe dream) I see a very unique opportunity to boost tourism and the economy at the same time. Here you could have a train that could leave hikers at rail side trail heads, or take paddlers in to remote ponds where they could unload their boats from the “canoe car”. The train could also have excursion trains to hotels in different places along the route, where folks who want less of a rugged experience could enjoy the area in a new way. What you need, if you want a train, is to have a unique experience that folks will come and want to pay for. A slow train that runs by peoples back yards and a propane tank storage facility in Saranac Lake is doomed. It was fun once, but I will never shell out all that money to take my kids on the ride again!

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  4. tourpro says:

    How about a Community Train-Store?

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  5. Paul says:

    Tourpro, that is a good one!

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  6. Brian says:

    I’m a big fan of trains as mass transit but much less so of tourist trains. The Adirondacks are an area where people go to be outside. They go there to hike, to bike, to ski, to snowshoe, to be active. How many people are really going to go to the Adirondacks to sit on a train going through the woods? To spend gas money to drive to the train station and then spend more money on the train ticket? And even if they did, how many would do so more than once (in contrast to the active people who have countless trails to use)? The hikers, bikers and skiers who would use such a trail are far more numerous than those who would plunk out money to sit on a train and their economic impact on the region is beyond question. Additionally, the trail, unlike the train, has the advantage of requiring little continuing public money in terms of maintenance/operation.

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  7. Brian says:

    Though I will say that the Lake Placid-Old Forge train(s) at least go through population centers unlike the Upper Hudson Railroad in Warren County which is 30-45 minutes away from the population centers of Queensbury/Glens Falls and Saratoga.

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  8. Stephen says:

    It seems incredulous that anyone in the great Adirondack park would prefer noxious snowmobiles over a few railroad tracks. It isn’t like there aren’t any other trails to drive those machines.
    When gasoline gets to 10.00/gallon, not only will the public be in favor of preservation of the existing tracks, but wonder why the railroad cannot be restored from the Tri-Lakes to Plattsburg.
    The President made a case for high speed rail, what we really need is decent medium speed rail, basically an updated system of what we had a century ago.

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  9. Paul says:

    Brian, I agree. Unless you link the train with access to parts of the back country that normally would not be accessible it doesn’t make sense. Like I said above the Durango and Silverton RR in Cololrado is an experience that keeps you coming back. You would have to link this with other recreational opportunities or it will never work. Anyone who thinks of this as “transportation” is living in the past.

    Stepehn, the president said he wanted to spend money on high speed rail, that isn’t much of a “case” yet. I am sure Biden made him put that in there. I think he wants a high speed train to get him home to Delaware faster. He used to commute every night by train. I am kidding.

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  10. Paul says:

    Also, I recently saw an electric snowmobile it was very cool. Quiet and clean.

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  11. McCulley says:

    Stephen if you ever saw the way the locomotive belches smoke you would think my four stroke is far better. At $10.00 per gallon the 141 miles from Utica to Lake Placid can be done by the Escape Hybrid for $35 vs 13 hours on a train.

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  12. Paul says:

    The train I describe in Colorado was a narrow gauge steam driven coal burner. Not only smoke, but sparks! Very exciting, probably wouldn’t sell with environmental groups around here.

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  13. Paul says:

    Correction the trains I think are burning wood. That is perfect you can cut it from the side of the tracks!

    Check it out:

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  14. newt says:

    Except maybe for train boffins, the Scenic Railroad stretch between Saranac Lake and Lake Placid is about the least scenic stretch in the Adirondacks. Once you get past the bridge over the river, there is nothing much to look at but the forest about 30 feet from the tracks, except for a few highlights like Pine Ridge Cemetery, a beaver slough, and the backside of the Medium Security prison in Ray Brook.
    Then it stops in Placid, about half a mile from anything. I can’t imagine anyone over age 8, make that 6, getting any kind of a thrill from it.

    I have recommended visitors against taking this trip through nowhere on numerous occasions.

    On the other hand, my family once took a bicycle ride on an old rail bed on Cape Cod, and had a wonderful time.

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  15. Adirondack'er says:

    McCulley says “141 miles from Utica to Lake Placid would take 13 hours.” The study says “60 MPH track”. 141 miles @ 60 MPH = 2 hours, 20 minutes. So even with stops along the way, it would only add up to about 3 hours. Where do you get 13 hours from???

    Newt: I understand that the line from Saranac Lake to Tupper Lake is actually very scenic, and would actually make a much better train ride than Saranac to Placid. Why they didn’t fix that part in stead of the LP to SL back in 2000 I guess we’ll never know! But if the SL to TL were repaired, the railroad might justify it’s existance up there.

    I like the idea that the railroad could be fixed immediately (or at least as soon as funding was in place) rather than the long, drawn out process of state politics, and it would still have a positive economic impact.
    Knowing this state, they’d kick out the railroad only to let the corridor sit unused, without maintenance for 10 + years while the corridor use was in litigation. Then, when they finally got around to making a decision, they’d say it was so deteriorated that it would be too costly to do anything with!

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  16. SupperInTupper says:

    Every time there is an article about this debate, someone always brings up gas prices and the future need for rail. The NYC subway system operates in a deficit. This rail will never make fiscal sense. This debate is really about tourist train vs recreation trail. Its good to have some data, now hopefully some towns can make up their minds and pass resolutions support one or the other and the DOT can stay the course or change and put this debate to bed. One or the other IS better than nothing.

    Brian – you make it sound like Tupper Lake is unanimous for the Train but the ADE article quotes the town supervisor as being in favor of the rec. trail.

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  17. Mervel says:

    It would be nice to take a train from Old Forge or Lake George to Lake Placid.

    I think this train is nice for the kids but it is more like an amusement ride than an actual working train. It all depends on the financial viability.

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  18. Curt says:

    I was leafing through the full report and a column in a table caught my eye, labeled “ridership per mile”. Turns out it was used to produce a number for the increased ridership on the train due to the additional length. But that’s like saying you get more water as you make a pipe longer. Totally invalid, as proved within the presented data table itself. I found a simple but large math error, too. As near as I can tell, the number they actually used was either a simple guess or came from the railroad operators; they wrongly labelled it “conservative”, based on the goofy ridership/mile number. This being a hugely important number, it is astonishing how poorly it was derived and documented.

    It appears they used this same sort of analysis for the other scenario.

    Whether you’re a cyclist, snowmobiler, or rail fan – this study was very poorly done.

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  19. Adirondack'er says:

    Keep in mind Curt, if the rail was expanded it would open up a very scenic portion of the line (SL to TL) snd open up a few new places for people to get on and off. So assuming it would see new riders sounds reasonable to me.

    With a NET economic benefit of $1,457,000 per year, the rail appears the logical way to go.
    It’s $200,000 more beneficial per year than the trail, and it can be implemented NOW. Waiting for the state legislature to approve a trail would present a whole new set of problems! I want to see somehting happen before I retire!!!

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  20. Paul says:

    Maybe we could put a high speed rail system in there! Seriously though, I think you would need to rehab a large portion of the tracks that run deeper into the woods for my plan to be of any value. It is probably too expensive. If it is just going to be short lines here and there I say maybe the best thing is to use the corridor for something else.

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  21. Jeff says:

    Newt’s observation is useful maybe because I was thinking about it today as I went through Keene Valley to Etown 4 times. People speak so much about Keene Valley because there is a view. When those fields grow up at the intersection it won’t be the same for tourists. Just a tunnel of trees. Of course they will still have a view downhill from Etown. People complain about I-80 in Pennsylvania because it is boring, just woods.

    Forget the train, keep the right of way, add light rail coaches- Busses on rails- which could be powered by hydrogen some day. Alternatively like Yellowstone in winter, use snow coaches or like the Glacier Travel in British Columbia articulated buses. I like the tracked low ground pressure concept though. They have the potential to get off the railroad bed and run the roads on Finch Property or Follensby in the back country of Cranberry or many other places where there are views of ponds or water courses. The tourists want to see back country and not hike a lot. Lease it out. An advantage of rail- once installed there isn’t the continual disturbance of soil if it was a woods road.

    There are some nice railtrails in Pennsylvania. Vehicles like the above running at 10-20 mph would be bicycle speeds. The trails could be multi use.

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  22. Bret4207 says:

    Brian, who would ride the trains? People who can’t or don’t want to hike in or bike. You know- gram and gramps, mom and dad and the kids. That’s the problem with the Adk Park in general, no access unless you want to hike it. People were just complaining about some areas being over used and other not being used at all. I’ve spent a lot of time on the section from North Creek to Tahawus. It’s beatiful and provides access to some nice backcountry and views that are simply spectacular. I’ve done time on the section near Long Lake West through to Tupper too, more of the same.

    There’s validity to both sides of this argument.

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  23. Get-a-map says:

    Northcreek to Tahawus is the wrong rail.

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  24. Curt Austin says:

    Adirondack’er: the study as it is favored the trail, but the study was done so poorly that no one should use the numbers. Not me, not you. It was meant to shed some light on the situation, but unfortunately it will do the opposite.

    Studies of this sort should always be examined carefully. With respect to the specific figure for increased rail passengers, it essentially was not a study at all. They arrived at one number by analysis, but the analysis was faulty. The other number – the one they used – was at best a simple guess, at worst a number provided by a party interested in the outcome. That ain’t no way to do a study. I don’t know what number should have been used, higher or lower, but I wish I could be paid $60,000 for a guess.

    The other numbers are likely to be found just as goofy. When the media gets around to studying the report, look out.

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  25. I rode the PRR when I was in grade school in the late 50’s and 60’s. between NYC and Philadelphia. The rail brings back some nostalgia. If any railroad can make a profit or generate enough economic benefit in the Adirondacks I would be really surprised. Last week I was in the CP office in Ft. Edward, NY discussing the profitability of running trains between Saratoga and North Creek. Quite frankly it is a pipe dream to think anyone would take a train in NYC at 7:00 AM arrive in Saratoga between Noon and 1 PM and then get on a train ride to North Creek that would arrive some three to four hours later.
    One must understand that the rails between Saratoga are rated at a maximum speed of 30 mph with many areas only 10 mph. It would cost millions to upgrade the track to allow a 50 or 60 mph train. Additionally since the rail to North Creek freight will have the right of way passing through Saratoga. A railroad employee who has worked for both the CP and the North Creek railroad said the realist travel time would be close to 12 to 14 hours. How many families would routinely ride from NYC to North Creek to ski considering the Amtrak train does not run baggage cars and has no way to handle skis for 60 to 90 riders plus winter skiing luggage. Two adults and 2 children can ride the train from NYC to Ticonderoga and back for $500.00 for a 4 day weekend trip in February and can rent a SUV for about the same price and make the trip to North Creek about 4 ½ hours.
    “Tour-Pro” recommends a community train store. Pottersville, NY will have one this summer called Railroads on Parade. http::// completely funded with private funds. Nostalgia on a real budget not paid for by hard working tax payers

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  26. Bret4207 says:

    Get a map- this subject takes in more than just one RR.

    Andrew, the current paradigm works against ski trains to the Crick, too. But in 10 or 20 years rail might well be a larger part of our lives. Simply ripping up the rail beds is shortsighted IMO. $10.00 gas may mean no one skis PERIOD! But it may also mean a shift to rail for more transport.

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  27. Bret4207 says:

    Jeeze, “…to the Crick, TRUE…”.

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