Afternoon Read: So which will it be, Adirondacks? Rails or trails?

The Albany Times-Union is wading into the debate over how legacy railroad lines should be used in the Adirondacks.

The newspaper focuses primarily on the fight in the Tri-Lakes region, where some activists want the railbed from Lake Placid to Old Forge turned into a multi-use trail.

“This trail is the ideal alternative to a failed railroad,” said Jim McCulley, president of Lake Placid Snowmobile Club and a member of the new Adirondack Recreation Trail Advocates. He said the cash-strapped state has little prospect of paying to upgrade the 80-mile stretch, so aging rails likely will remain useless for years.

Between 2007 and 2010, the society got more than $900,000 in support from the state Department of Transportation and still lost more than $66,000 running the line. “The moment the state subsidy stops, they cannot even turn on the lights,” McCulley said.

This narrative infuriates train buffs and their supporters, who see railroads as an important asset, not just for tourism.

Railway Society Vice President J. Alan Heywood said such thinking is shortsighted. “We have had limited success, but it is not fair to be judged by a track that is a third done,” he said. “We have almost reached critical mass. I used to give dates when we would have the entire line repaired, but every one of them has been wrong. It could still take years. A decade would be my goal.”

…And he said the rail line will become more important in future years, if the price of gasoline rises. “Once those rails are gone, getting them back in is unlikely,” he said.

Railroad fans argue that this debate is nonsensical, given the fact that state officials have shown no appetite for abandoning the tracks or converting them into a recreational path.  But path advocates have been successful at keeping the issue alive.

What do you think?  Is this a timely debate?

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34 Comments on “Afternoon Read: So which will it be, Adirondacks? Rails or trails?”

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  1. Need the Rails? If I have done the math anywhere near correctly, it would take $15 a gallon gasoline for the train to compete with private vehicles comparing current ticket cost per. mile. That does not take into account that passengers are still going to have a cost in getting where they want to go.
    Hybrid buses and cars are a more likely future for these rural locations.
    Even Snowmobiles are fielding electric versions which should be available as soon as this spring. The rail use privatizes a public asset with little benefit.
    Camoin Associates Study shows ( using the ASR’s own figures) that the longer trip would mean less passengers per mile. If ( and that’s a big if ) the railroad did take passengers from the road, that is where most businesses are so who wins?

  2. Paul says:

    Scott, I don’t think you can bother considering this as a “transportation” option.

    The answer to Brian’s Post is BOTH.

    The railroad should be refurbished into a real tourist train like they have out near Durango Colorado (see below). It could carry hikers and paddlers to new remote flag stops and put ins. This could be far more unique than any of the many bike paths we have around the country.

    This is about creating tourist opportunities not about how much we need gas to cost to make it a viable way to travel.

    But we can have some great bike paths also (that snowmobiles can use in winter). Let’s use some of the hundreds of miles of other old railroad beds and roads that have been abandoned over the years that crisscross the Adirondacks.

  3. Jim Bullard says:

    FWIW in reference to Scott’s hypothetical cost comparison: After taking a tall ship cruise from Clayton to Montreal last September I took the train to From Montreal to Plattsburgh for $15, a distance of 64 miles. You can’t drive that on one gallon of gas.

    Also as I understand it the rails are currently multi-use. In winter when the trains aren’t running, the rail beds are being used by other users. So what would the winter users gain by having the tracks ripped up? Repairing the tracks will take money but ripping them up and grading the bed for bicycles and hikers to use in summer wouldn’t be cheap either. According to the Rail-to-Trails website the cost per mile of crushed stone trail is 80-120k/mile, so as a best case scenario, converting that 80 mile run to multi-use would cost $6.4 million. The only thing cheaper is ‘soil-cement’ and that can cost more than $80k/mile depending on circumstances. Can anyone show how removing the tracks would result in a net gain to either the Adirondack tourism economy or the state? I doubt it.

  4. Peter Hahn says:

    Why not develop extensive bike trails in each village and let people take their bikes on the train. (and their canoes/kayaks). Doesn’t do the snowmobilers any good though.

  5. Peter Hahn says:

    Pauls point about the hundreds of discontinued train routes through out the adirondacks is a good one. Also, skiing yesterday, I saw lots of power line right of ways – with wide cleared lanes that would be ideal for snowmobiles. Why not create a bike/snowmachine trail system combining the other train routes and the power line right ways.

  6. Peter Hahn says:

    We argue about which would be better economically but obviously both would be a lot better than either one.

  7. oa says:

    What Paul said! I don’t get this either/or line that the hiking advocates are pushing. Really defeatist, and ultimately anti-development and anti-environmental thinking, IMO

  8. Walker says:

    OA, it’s not the hikers who are against the “both option,” it’s the snowmobilers and the bikers.

  9. Paul says:

    Walker I think oa means “biker” not “hiker”? Is that right? They are in favor of pulling the tracks.

    The idea I floated does have a stumbling block. The state wants to abandon roads and they certainly don’t want to re-open ones that have already been abandoned to bikes. Too bad.

    10 miles at $19 per
    Auto with 2.5 average passengers?

    On the bright side, almost every Snowmobiler here today has signed up for ARTA

  11. yes, I know the $19 is round trip. Sorry

  12. Chris says:

    What everyone is forgetting, is that the current railroad north of Old Forge is in such deteriorated condition that passenger service is not allowed on it. There is no current train service running there and the cost of upgrading the line to class III service has been estimated at 45 million dollars. Who is going to pay for this and should this money be spent on a railroad line that went out of business 40 years ago do to lack of passengers and freight service? I have to think that some company or business would have stepped forward by now if this could be a profitable venture. The state could easily apply for “Railbanking” as allowed by congress to preserve the corridor for future train use if needed and remove the rusting rails and rotted ties for now so that locals and tourists could enjoy this jewel of the Adirondacks!

  13. Lee Keet says:

    I live on Lake Colby, one of the key barriers to the side-by-side solution some have proposed. We have a nearly 1/4 mile causeway that split our lake in two in 1901, before the Army Corps, DEC, and APA required permits for such projects. To widen the path to the requisite 20+ feet would require hundreds of thousand of tons of fill, tens of millions of dollars of funding, and at leat three unattainable permits. Then come wetlands, crossings like ours (e.g. Hoel Pond), and adjoining easements that would have to be renegotiated. There are no ‘work arounds’. Going north out of Saranac Lake on bikes currently means using Route 86 or Forest Home Road, both of which I ride, but would never, ever, consider taking kids on. Oh, and by the way, a side-by-side would require a 3 1/2 chain link fence in the middle. Tell that to the people with water access in Lake Clear, along Rollins Pond, etc. It is either rails or trails, not both, and you cannot split the baby. I clearly favor the trail over the status quo, as trains are simply not comng back.

  14. Walker says:

    Lee, I wouldn’t be real happy about riding a bike on Forest Home road either, but it’s not real hard to imagine a bike path being built there that would rejoin the rail corridor after Colby.

  15. Jim Bullard says:

    “Oh, and by the way, a side-by-side would require a 3 1/2 chain link fence in the middle.”

    Why? Overprotective bureaucracy?

  16. Walker says:

    Actually, Jim, it doesn’t sound all that irrational to me. You’d have snowmobiles doing 50 mph or more on one trail (sometimes with alcohol impaired drivers) and XC skiers doing 3-4 mpg on the other. Not a great mix.

  17. OnewifeVetNewt says:

    Interesting to see strong support for rails here.

    I liked the idea when SL – LP stretch was being built, then I rode it. Lamest 9 mile “scenic ” trip in America, I’m sure. High point is the view of the butt side of Adk. (Scenic) Corr. Facility.

    Can’t do both.


  18. Tony Goodwin says:

    Imagining a bike path next to Forest Home Road is easy and cheap. Actually building it would cost nearly as much as building a new road for that distance. Additionally, this path would have some challenging hills whereas the rail corridor is nearly flat. Furthermore, once you get to Saranac Inn, there is Hoel Pond that would have to be bypassed via the Floodwood Road, and then there is the steep bank along Floodwood and Rollins ponds. The net result is that it would require a completely new route from Saranac Lake to Tupper Lake.
    In other words, this is NOT an option no matter how much some people persist in thinking that the tracks can be saved and there can be a path as well.

  19. Irwin says:

    Seems to me a while back someone mentioned that as long as the train engine needs to be serviced in the Utica area the tracks will have to remain in place, period. So as long as the current scenic train between SL & LP remains operational the tracks will stay. Is there any other way to service the engine? I’m for the trail option completely but until the servicing item remains I don’t see how the trails can ever come to fruition.

  20. Dick Beamish says:

    It sounds like a perfect compromise to have both train and trail in the same right-of-way, but to have both is not feasible either financially or environmentally. A parallel recreation trail extending the 90 miles from Lake Placid to Old Forge is no more than a pipe dream. On the other hand, it would be relatively easy and inexpensive /Saranac Lake end has produced no measurable economic benefits in the 12 years it has been operating, into a world-class recreational trail. Users would flock to the trail from all over, including snowmobilers in the winter and bicyclers, hikers, strollers, runners, birders, etc. during the warmer months. We’ve given the Lake Placid-Saranac Lake tourist train a fair test, and it has failed to deliver the promised benefits. It’s time to capitalize on the enormous potential of a year-round, multi-use recreational trail on a mostly unused travel corridor that is perectly suited for this use. Tghe bottom line is economic impact, and rail-to-trail conversions all over the country have proved to be of huge economic benefit to the communities they touch.

  21. BRFVolpe says:


  22. Paul says:

    Some of the interior roads and trails we have (if opened) to bikes could be real unique riding. Now that could bring in some folks to the area. Flat is fun but not flat is funner.

  23. Paul says:

    Dick, “strollers” what kind of bike path are we talking about here??

  24. Paul says:

    This is an interesting discussion. It appears that there are only two options (maybe three). I disagree.

  25. Walker says:

    Dick says: “It’s time to capitalize on the enormous potential of a year-round, multi-use recreational trail on a mostly unused travel corridor that is perectly suited for this use.”

    Why not start by capitalizing on the enormous potential of the Lake Clear to Malone recreational trail, where the tracks are already gone. You know, proof of concept? Who’s to say this particular rail-trail conversion is really going to be the big draw you all say it will? Why not prove you’re right somewhere where you don’t have to destroy an existing resource to do it? Then, when it turns out that vast hordes actually do show up to use it and spend zillions locally, you can say “See!” and everyone will have to believe you. Now, not so much…

  26. OnewifeVetNewt says:

    Interesting idea, Walker.

  27. Peter Hahn says:

    Walker – that trail is the one they took former president Bush on a bike ride, and it is already used as a snow mobile trail. I dont think it goes all the way to Malone yet, but it wouldnt be that hard (you would think). It does go through bloomingdale bog with lots of birds (and bugs).

    It wouldnt connect to the OldForge area which already has a big winter snowmobile economy and which would be an important nucleus for the “rails to trails” project that wants to knock out the train tracks.

    But Malone sure needs some help too.

  28. Walker says:

    Peter, it goes to Malone and on to the Canadian border, according to the maps at

    And yes, it is already a snowmobile route, but it is NOT a bike trail. ARTA’s claim is that the rail to trail conversion can easily accommodate biking and hiking, and in fact, the Bloomingdale bog stretch does. The rest of the trail really doesn’t. If rail trails are the fabulous four-season resource they’re made out to be, let’s prove it on some of the many rail corridors where the rails are already gone, BEFORE we start ripping up existing track.

  29. There are trails, then there are trails as every railroad is different.
    Lake Clear to Malone (even Canada) does have potential, maybe great potential, if it were part of this proposed corridor. The problem as it stands now is that the destinations are not developed and the accesses are more difficult. Also, the ownership is not the same and when the route was salvaged, the bridges and ballast were removed putting this back into a very expensive route to surface. If one of the main reasons we seek to create this recreational corridor is for economic growth, we need to gear it to
    Tourists who are also seeking the social and service amenities the area provides. Consider too, in the winter the Old Forge to Placid route is as good as the snow gets!

  30. Walker says:

    The bridges were removed? How are folks riding to Malone?

    And Malone has fewer restaurants and motels than Tupper Lake?

  31. Peter Hahn says:

    If the rails between lake placid and old forge are taken out, they will take out the bridges as well.

  32. UmMmmmmmmmm..We ll ……..
    These are things to research, they should be part of forming an opinion.
    If you ride to Malone, you watch for signs that bring you off the old rail bed, then you cross the roads and get back on. When you get all the way ( there are a couple nice places on the way ), you usually have thin snow in the St Lawrence Valley, but you can get down the shoulder or cross a farm type field and make a couple places. Now, when the Lake Cleat to Malone was taken out, it was not State owned so the company scrapped everything. This line is owned by the State which is obligated under the UMP to retain major structures and if the conversion to a Recreational Trail is accomplished by Rail banking, there is a Federal mandate to retain the corridor for the possibility of rail (or other public need ) replacement.

  33. Two Cents says:

    Does Lake Clear to Malone use Red Tavern, and or any of the Franklin State Forrest’s trails, Deer River area, Renyldston road etc…
    not familiar with that route.

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