A detour in the Adirondack tourist train debate

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.

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42 Comments on “A detour in the Adirondack tourist train debate”

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  1. Sue says:

    Great article! Just to correct a minor error.. there already IS a shuttle bus from the Westport Amtrak station to Lake Placid. Riders can book their train ticket directly to Lake Placid as their destination. It includes the shuttle to and from the station into Placid.

  2. Anon says:

    It would be useful to know how much money related to the railroad Fish’s organization is funneling – you know, to put her “editorial” in context.

  3. wj says:

    I’d like to see a passenger + kayak rail service from Lake Placid to Lake Lila and the Five Ponds Wilderness. Put a bar car (or two) on it and I think it could turn a profit.

    I know without several million dollars, this is little more than a pipe dream. But such a rail link to some of the greatest paddling in the world would be a huge draw and a helluva lot of fun.

  4. Rich Loeber says:

    It is a pipe dream to think that the RR will ever be used again for long distance freight or passenger service and people should just stop advocating for that reason. I am a staunch supporter of the RR and keeping the rails in place. This silly argument detracts from other more valid reasons for keeping the rails. I fail to see why a side-by-side solution doesn’t satisfy everyone.

  5. Walker says:

    It seems to me that both sides (as per usual) heavily overstate their cases. The chances of these tracks ever being used for real transportation, not scenic tourism, seem slight to me. Still, the claim that ridership is slim to non-existent is a significant overstatement– the trains aren’t packed, but they aren’t empty, either.

    As for the claims that vast usage that would follow removal of the rails, there is already a former railroad trail with tracks already removed going from Lake Clear to Malone, which sees moderate use. Why not give this existing trail the full hiking/biking year-round makeover first, and see just how heavily it is used before ripping up the tracks between Tupper and Lake Placid?

  6. Lee Keet says:

    A key point is being missed: if a parallel trail is built from Lake Placid to Saranac Lake, that sunk cost ($5 million or more) will institutionalize the failed scenic railroad between those villages. But, and it is a big but, that means the tracks from Thendara (Old Forge) to Lake Placid MUST be maintained, as the rolling stock must go south every winter and come north every spring. Even if you can make a case for the current 9-mile rail service, giving up that 90 mile stretch through some of the world’s most beautiful territory, even if only delaying its use for another 25 years, penalizes our communities all of whom would benefit from a recreational trail. You simply cannot have both a 9-mile scenic railroad and a 90 mile trail, but you could have a 99 mile world class recreational trail AND save taxpayers a never-ending subsidy for a service very few people use.

  7. Peter Hahn says:

    Leaving aside all the rationalizations one way or the other about the economics of the train vs trail, there are a substantial number of people (tax-payers) in the state of New York who like trains. They like tourist trains running in the mountains and are willing and able to support them politically. The state is not going to rip out the rails and replace them with a trail in our lifetimes. The state moves slowly on things that are clear cut, and the train/trail argument is far from clear cut.

    The opportunity is there now to build a trail near the tracks between Saranac Lake and Lake Placid. Chuck Damp has a well-argued discussion of this in the ADE.

  8. Paul says:

    wj, has the right idea.

    And I think that Brain is over analyzing Kate’s Almanack article. She was just saying that the DOT is not going to give up on the corridor as a transportation possibility, even if that is transportation for tourists. She is not saying that it is going to be some freight line. Why would some tanker carload of hazardous material ever need to be on this line like Brian describes?

    She is saying that a dual use model would keep everyone happy and it would fit with the reality of the DOT not wanting to give it up.

    Look, like wj says there is a solution. Is it financially viable? maybe not. As I have suggested before here is the model in the wild mountains of Colorado.

    Check this out:


    The Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge RR. I have taken this train (packed with tourists of all kinds) into the remote mountains and been dropped off to hike at one of its many flag stops in places where cars will never go and gotten picked up 5 days later when I flagged down the train. The same type of train could be here in the Adirondacks. It could take hikers and paddlers (imagine the canoe and kayak car that wj envisions) into new remote trail heads and put ins. For older folks or folks that don’t want too much of an adventure it could take them from hotel to hotel in different Adirondack towns.

    Plus, like Kate describes, there could be trails next to the rails in many places as well.

    One thing is for certain and most people agree on, the way it is now is not sustainable, not to mention totally boring!

  9. erb says:

    Could a side-by-side trail/rail system really happen, or are there places where is it simply not possible to build a ROW wide enough for both uses? I tend to agree with Bev Stellges that the dual use proponents haven’t explained how it will work, especially between Saranac Lake and Tupper.

  10. Lily says:

    I am a firm supporter of keeping the RR intact. I am also a cyclist, paddler, hiker, etc., etc. The excursion RR is something special, unique and different in an area that is loaded with trails of all kinds. Variety is important to a healthy economy. I simply cannot think of a more unappealing bike route than a trail that runs on flat wooded terrain from LP to SL. It simply is too long (even with the possible jump-in and off points in Ray Brook and SL) and has too little variety to be of interest to cyclists. McCulley has only “partnered” with Goodwin out of a cynical desire to pretty-up his only interest which is to increase snowmobile access to LP. THAT is an activity we can live without in this area.

  11. Big Burly says:

    For several years as a senior exec with a very large national railway I dealt with the rails to trails issues. With the various regs and statutes in place today it would not be possible to build the railway infrastructure that exists in NA. Trail enthusiasts do a great job converting abandoned lines into another use — and user values are impressive.

    To abandon the existing line and convert it solely to a trail for use by cyclists, xc skiers, runners, and/or snowmobiles, 4 wheelers, or other powered vehicles is short sighted IMHO.

    The interior of the north country would never again have access to rail — guaranteed it will not be replaceable once abandoned.
    The best option by far is to build a trail system that parallels and uses the existing railway ROW — it will capture the interest of those who see the benefit of the easy grades and access to now difficult to get to places, while maintaining this essential transportation option.

    Mr. Mann and other supporters of the trail only option do a disservice to the common sense of most of us who live here. This line will never be a busy industrial railway. However, it was an important transportation link in the construction of the ’80 Olympics infrastructure and may be needed again.

    I remind readers and interested persons in the debate that Canadian Pacific bought the Delaware & Hudson ROW and running rights for very sound business reasons that are directly tied to the fundamental changes taking place with ocean cargo transport and access to the huge container port in New Jersey across from NYC.

    The ANCA project to build a trail alongside the existing ROW is a very positive and welcome asset for economic development. kudos to Kate Fish and her team and partners in this desirable initiative.

  12. Paul says:

    “Could a side-by-side trail/rail system really happen, or are there places where is it simply not possible to build a ROW wide enough for both uses?”

    erb, I think it is only possible in some locations. The ROW is wide enough the whole way, the trick is what is on the sides of the tracks. Lots of water in places. Perfect for new canoe access points if the train could service those areas.

  13. The Railroad has had some great successes: the Polar Express, the Canoe Carry South of Old Forge, but the question remains, Is this the best use of the Corridor? No. Rather than spending Millions to refurbish the Railroad which is proven to only spoon the gravy from the Tourists already in the area, and then spending Millions more, if even possible, to build a trail along side the rails and take years! The impact study, even with results weighted in favor of the railroad, finds a nearly 25% greater value in the Trail. This could be an end to the infusion of public funds and begin almost immediately. The Unit Management Plan with DOT and DEC was approved in its entirety; that is try the Railroad for five years and then perhaps an alternate, Alternative 4b Remove the rails, preserve the corridor and use it as a recreational trail. Let’s think outside the box here.

  14. Fred Fromace says:

    Some great comments from readers! So nice to not have the snowmobilers blabbing about their dreams of world class snow mobile trails! For God’s sake, there are snowmobile trails all over the Adirondack! There is only one railroad that crosses the Adirondacks. A rec trail CAN be built along side this railroad. The spots where the water butts up to the right-of-way could be problematic, but not impossible! Perhaps wooden bridges to skirt the railroads in these spots. The people who will not budge on their ‘no-railroad’ stance need to put that energy into a parallel trail. That would get built faster than the ripped out rails, trail-only senario. Don’t forget that the railroad is a protected piece of history…

  15. oa says:

    Big Burly is right (despite the fact that he’s an expert on the subject :)). When gas is $10 a gallon, that RR is going to be mighty important, for lots of reasons. And the Silverton train is awesome.

  16. Mcculley says:

    oa, if gas is $10.00 per gallon it will cost a car getting 30 miles to a gallon ( new CAFE standards are 35mpg) $80.00 round trip Utica to Lake Placid The train now cost $19.00 8 miles LP to SL so figure 160.00 round trip per person family of 4 will be taking the car. a train gets 10 gallons to the mile for this to be efficient it would have to carry at least 700 people every run. Will not carry 200 ever. So it’s less efficient than 350 cars. Also since ANCA has the same business model as the train which is endless government funding with no success necessary, it’s no wonder they support this continued wasteful spending. Also since an ANCA board member has lent a substantial amount of money to the ASR to remain operating, the conflict of interest stinks.

  17. Paul says:

    Jim, true the train will never replace the car as the main way to get to the Adirondacks so I wouldn’t even bother with doing the math. Why don’t you think that the mixed model I describe above isn’t a good idea? I have been snowmobiling those tracks for years do you think that pulling up the tracks is going to really cause a large increase in snowmobile use? Maybe.

  18. Lee Keet says:

    If any of the train advocates can show me how the “scenic railroad” will ever stop costing me tax dollars and instead bring economic growth to our region, I will switch sides immediately. The Camoin Study said that quadrupling the distance would increase traffic by 75%. This implies even greater subsidies for minimal added local impact. The case for recreational trails costing no tax dollars but creating jobs and economic growth are overwhelming, with hundreds of examples of success. I just don’t get the romantic attachment to a train to nowhere, and I am among many who are unwilling to subsidize it any longer.

  19. oa says:

    Interesting how the trains have to pay for every penny of their operation, and then make money, while our area’s massive, downstate-financed and federal-govt underwritten car subsidies (road upkeep, for example–blacktop gets a lot more expensive when oil prices go up) don’t figure into anyone’s math. Some people really hate them some trains and love them some cars.
    I’m still with Big Burly.

  20. Mcculley says:

    oa, cars pay for roads, by gas taxes, registration fees, sales tax. This train pays for nothing while using more resources than people commuting by cars. Please read this including the last paragraph.

    Paul, first off yes you would see a dramatic increase snowmobile traffic going from the 10 weeks now to 15 weeks with tracks removed. The trail next to the rail has major monetary cost and environmental cost. The six mile section from LP to Ray brook traverse 4 miles of wet lands. Cost for that section 4 million 3 from federal grants 1 million from North Elba tax payers. North Elba tax payers will then be responsible for ever. This is for a trail that will go 6 miles dropping everyone off next to two prisons.
    The APA who has denied other permits because the board walks or docks would have blocked light from the wet lands below, have okay-ed a project with 10 foot wide board walks for miles through wet land. It’s nice ANCA’s former director is in charge. Not to mention the fencing.
    But what is must disturbing is spending this money for a trail next to a railroad that would have closed in 2008 if ANCA board member Gene Falvo would not have given them 78,500 undocumented loan to maintain operations. Then in 2009 they paid Gene, back $10,000 and borrowed $15,000 from William Branson, they would have ended their year with just $456.00 in the bank without the Branson loan and without Falvos money they would have closed in 2008 and 2009. Here are the links to their tax returns.


    It’s bankrupt now why would we spend to duplicate this silliness.

  21. Peter Hahn says:

    Jim McCulley – all that money stuff is totally irrelevant. Yes a rec trail would be more fun for many people (especially those living nearby) than a tourist train. Yes, A rec trail all the way between Lake Placid and Old Forge would be better for the winter economy – especially near Old Forge – than a tourist train. All that is irrelevant too. The train is staying for the foreseeable future – many people like it. A trail beside the rails between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake is possible now, and will help the regional economy and provide recreation for tourists and people who live nearby.

  22. Mcculley says:

    Peter, it is BANKRUPT now, it will not be here shortly. So is New York, I might add and to spend money on the trail or the rail is a slap in the face of the all the people being laid off due to budget cuts from the state. I have to ask when would you say no to this wasteful spending when it’s between throwing old people out of a nursing home or taking away food pantry’s, because we are already doing this. Yet we have money for a trail and a failed train?
    Tell me who is going to come to use a 6 mile trail to the prisons? The people of New York own the corridor it should be up to them not a hobbyist railroad. I am sorry I am trying to use facts and figure to persuade people, because obviously with a number of people facts don’t matter.

  23. jim distefan o says:

    Discussion taking place is important and necessary irrespective of whether the old line is rehabilitated or a new line is built. In my humble opinion, any mode of transportation that provides access into and out of the Adirondacks is a positive and hopefully will be implemented. It is unfortunate that the National Railway Board allowed the tracks, to deteriorate along with State and local officials and the general public who were all asleep at the switch, myself included. This is infrastructure and needs to be seriously considered. Positive infrastructure improvements mean JOBS>

  24. Paul says:

    The proposal I made above I would only support if it made sense financially. There is no debate that the current set up is a loser. I just think that there are some models that could make a bigger economic impact than just a trail. It would take a lot of homework to be sure. I suspect that once the rails are gone they will never be replaced.

  25. Paul says:

    Jim, that is an interesting article but much of it is mute since the rails already exist.

  26. oa says:

    “oa, cars pay for roads, by gas taxes, registration fees, sales tax.”
    But they don’t pay anywhere near the total cost of their subsidies. Car drivers are freeriders. http://www.slate.com/id/2196340/

  27. Mcculley says:

    Paul, the rails don’t really exsist for use, the train can only do 5mph over 80 miles of the route. It’s a total rebuild.
    oa, did you add in the jobs from the auto industry,garages, dealerships and workers that build the roads from their property tax paid. It comes allot closer than the train paying for zero of it’s cost.

  28. jim distefan o says:

    I read the article and agree that implementing any type of transportation will involve a carbon footprint Do the benefits outweigh the negatives? At this point it is just a topic of discussion that needs to be explored. Maybe call it a study then we can study the study to death like localy with Onondaga Lake.

  29. matt says:

    The Slate article has a mea culpa at the bottom that the $100 billion figure was inflate by a factor of 12! So its more like $8.3 billion.

    Fuel tax, vehicle sales rental tax in 2008 totaled $7.5 billion.

    Beside, we all use goods and service transported on roads. If we need help, the police, fire and ambulance use roads.

  30. Paul says:

    “Paul, the rails don’t really exsist for use, the train can only do 5mph over 80 miles of the route. It’s a total rebuild.”

    Any clue what the price tag would be?

  31. Paul says:

    Also, Jim it is not a total rebuild. My guess is that the main costs in constructing a rail line are the clearing, filling, and grading. That is all done. But no doubt it would be costly to bring the RR up to spec.

  32. Walker says:

    I’d like to hear one of the Rip Up The Rails advocates explain why the Saranac Lake to Old Forge trail would be a gold mine while the Lake Clear to Malone is small potatoes.

  33. Mervel says:

    Infrastructure is a good thing.

    But if we are going to spend money on real rail line infrastructure in the North Country, you would do it in the Park last. There are several lines which could be put to immediate industrial use in the Seaway Valley.

    This is a tourist line and if it is a viable tourist line I would be in favor of keeping it open as long as the benefits of tourist train for the kiddies outweighs the benefits of tearing it up and using it as some sort of trail system (which would also cost). But as Brian pointed out it is not realistic or maybe even viable to think of this as transportation or for commerce.

  34. Eric says:

    Brian, you mentioned people looking at a train schedule from NY, Boston, Montreal. But you seem to have left out western cities like Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo and even Cleveland. I ride the “Late Shore Limited” from Chicago to Utica!(Not out of the way) Boston and NY are large markets. But NOT the only markets. Lee, the Adirondacks are NOWHERE! That’s why many people come. We like that! It can be very hard to get sleeper space on the Lake Shore Limited. I find myself wishing the Chicago-to Lake Placid sleeper was running again.

  35. ADK Rail Craft ‘Beer Trail’ > ADKBREWCO will ‘seed’ the Utica/Remsen Lake Placid route w/dozens of nano breweries (w/micro breweries in Saranac Lake and Lake Placid) using Chinese investment $ via the USCIS EB-5 program to fund their development thus providing a) dozens of reasons to take the train and make the stops along the way; craft beervana b) tie-ins for existing local hotels & restaurants & merchants c) a rail ‘path’ for shipping production out and materials in to the breweries. Closing the ‘loop’ by extending to Malone and/or continuing to use Lake Placid to Westport Bus shuttle will provide a ‘beer trail’ even MADD would ‘approve’:

  36. oa says:

    Matt red and sed: “The Slate article has a mea culpa at the bottom that the $100 billion figure was inflate by a factor of 12! So its more like $8.3 billion.”
    No, Matt, the $100 billion is the corrected version. And that’s not the figure that was incorrectly inflated; that inflated part was the construction figure only. The reason he said the sentence is now correct at $100 billion is because he caught the error and corrected it to the correct figure of $100 billion. So it’s still $100 billion.

  37. oa

    Good ‘eye’. An actual ‘reader’ of textl; hat tip to your elementary teacher(s).

    RIF > Reading IS Fundamental.

    One of the common ‘deceits’ in many arguments is ignoring ‘facts’, worse yet; manipulating/obscuring ‘facts’ hoping others won’t take the time or effort to check for themselves. Worst? Making up your own facts to fit your mindset/ideology.

    Again, good ‘eye’. Thanks for the FYI.

    And, stay ‘tuned’, craft brewing IS coming to the Adirondacks, in a BIG way via ADKBREWCO and there will be dozens of small (nano) community brewers/pubs ‘grown’ along the Utica/Remsen > Saranac Lake / Lake Placid corridor; the ADK Rail Beer Trail.

  38. Nice to see intelligent discourse but you’re still thinking WAY too short-term.

    TLDR version: Peak oil. Electrification. Priuses, no thanks. Volunteers can do anything.

    20 years ago you said “Gas will never go over $1/gal.” 10 years ago you said “Gas will never go over $2/gal.” Today you imagine a future with $4/gal. gas. That’s just a fantasy. Hubbert predicted peak oil and he’s been right so far. Production is wheezing and China is rapacious, $8/gal. in 2020 is not impossible, nor is $16/gal. in 2030.

    Well, okay – electrification. Gas, hydro, wind, solar, even nuke starts looking good at those prices. But still, how do you get to Lake Placid?

    Electric cars? NO. There’s no “silver bullet” batteries in sight. At best we’ll double range from current production models. Pure electrics will still be “city cars”. Strong hybrids will be awesome but will still need gas after about 80 miles. Biofuels? Maybe, but not what I’d bet my town on.

    Electrifying the railroad – now that’s easy.

    But first let me kill off this “total rebuild” SCAM. The scam is to remove the rails, on the promise that they can go back later. No – rails have NEVER gone back down once removed. The LIE, on which the scam is built, is that the track need a “total rebuild”, implying that costs the same as new track. NO, NO, NO. It is much easier to rehab a “5 mph” railroad, even volunteers can do it, here watch.


    The railroad was worse than the Adirondack. You are seeing 10 years of 2 Saturdays a month from 4 volunteers, using track machinery. (the big expense lies there, you can’t change a tie by hand, not productive.) A couple thousand ties and some truckloads of stone.

    Note the electrification. Built from scratch, starting with new poles, by an all-volunteer force. This is high quality catenary (leveled wire, no sag) rated for 100mph.

    The project did not suffer for lack of money but still, total project cost was unbelievably low. Bare cost of materials, delivery of materials, a few key machines, and maintenance of same. It’s amazing what you can do, when you put projects in the hands of the volunteer corps instead of the government.

  39. oa says:

    I like beer. I like local beer better.

  40. stephen knobloch says:

    if I were you I would THINK about it hard and long before making a decision as to taking up the tracks. look at the past. they tore down the pennys station in NY and listin to the out cry from that. any time you make the move to get rid of something from the past to make room or save a couple of pennies you always regret it later. so just remember one thing IF YOU TERR IT DOWN OR REMOVE THE PAST IT IS GONE FOREVER AND IT WON`T COME BACK. I have seen it happen menny times.

  41. Nathanael says:

    Rebuild the railroad all the way. Rebuild it now. It’s good for 5mph, that means the rebuild isn’t that much work by comparison to building a new road or railroad (grading, filling, etc).

    You’ll be startled how many people start visiting Lake Placid (from WEST of the Adirondacks) who wouldn’t even consider it before.

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