Adirondack train group moves to answer growing questions

The last few months have been complicated for the Adirondack Scenic Railroad.  Bill Branson, head of the Adirondack Railroad Preservation Society, says his group has tried to remain above the fray as debate swirls about the tourist train project.

“We chose a while ago to take the high road and be above the name calling and the misinformation,” he says.

But this week, Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates announced that it had gathered more than 10,000 signatures on a petition calling for the railroad tracks from Old Forge to Lake Placid to be torn up and replaced with a multi-use trail.

Perhaps more importantly, seven local governments along the rail corridor have now passed resolutions questioning Branson’s vision of an excursion train — with some town, village and county leaders calling point-blank for the tracks to be torn up immediately.

Train advocates still have a lot of supporters, including powerful groups like the region’s Chamber of Commerce and the Adirondack North Country Association.

But in an interview this week, Branson acknowledged that his group hasn’t been visible enough in the debate.  “We don’t have an attack organization or a defense organization,” he said.

“We don’t have volunteers who really want to mix it up with their neighbors in the community.  It’s hard for us to respond.”

It appears that Branson understands that this approach hasn’t worked.  He said his group recognizes that many locals are skeptical about the tourism railroad’s future, after decades of delay and slow progress.

The current plan for reviving the railroad was approved nearly a quarter century ago, and much of the track remains in disrepair.

“They’re not wrong in what they’re saying,” Branson said.  “Whatever is happening is happening in small bites.”

Part of the problem is that train advocates, including those within the state Department of Transportation, think removing the tracks seems inconceivable — or “crazy,” as Branson describes it.

They see slow, steady progress toward a vision of revived rail transport that could one day include cargo trains and regular passenger service into the heart of the Adirondacks.

But that’s clearly not the way it looks to a wide swath of the general public, or to local government leaders.

I suspect that train boosters will have to make a more convincing argument or run the risk of watching their support erode even further.

(A lot of smart people disagree with me.  Kate Fish, head of the Adirondack North Country Association, and a passionate supporter of the train, calls the whole debate about the rail corridor’s future “a bit of a distraction.”)

Fortunately, the railroad is currently developing a public business plan, which Branson says will be available soon.

The document will include information about how much state of New York funding would be needed to move the project forward, along with specific claims and information about what an expanded tourism railroad might do for the Park’s economy.

Providing those numbers and a detailed vision for where the tourism train project goes next, will be a hugely helpful addition to the conversation.

One big question is the future of a proposed Pullman car overnight excursion that would take passengers from New York City to Lake Placid, which was announced this fall to great fanfare.

But there have been few details offered for how long that project would take to launch — speculation has ranged from two to ten years — how much it would cost taxpayers, and what the benefits would be for communities along the rail corridor.

I have no idea who will, or should, win the Great Adirondack Train Debate.  But I think it’s undeniable that, welcome or not by train boosters, that debate is well underway, it’s serious, and not going away any time soon.

Next month, I have a full article about the debate in the Adirondack Explorer magazine.  And in the coming days, NCPR will also air an interview with one of ARTA’s founders about their vision for a recreational trail.

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233 Comments on “Adirondack train group moves to answer growing questions”

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  1. Peter Hahn says:

    This is a saddening controversy. It pits two groups of activist-idealists fighting over the same piece of land. My thought is that the train people got there first, so ARTA should focus on some other abandoned train right of way.

  2. Peter Hahn says:

    The sad part is where first ARTA and now the train group are going negative (as Brian brought out in his interview). This will end badly for everyone.

  3. I have no dog in this fight but while I listened to the interview, the train advocate really didn’t offer many answers. Mostly bashing the other side and general vagueness.

  4. Pete Klein says:

    Tearing up the tracks might be good for snowmobilers during winters when there is not much snow.
    But the idea that tearing up the tracks would be a great economic boom for hikers and bicyclists is absurd.
    This so called multi-use trail is miles and miles out in the middle of nowhere, far removed from the most basic of services.
    At least when a snowmobiler has an accident, another snowmobiler might be able to quickly go for help. Hikers and bikers could find themselves waiting forever for word to get out that they need help.
    This so called multi-use trail can not in any way be compared to trails such as those in the Moose River Plains or Perkins Clear where cars and trucks also use the road, and where a passing motorist can quickly get help for someone in need.

  5. Paul says:

    If the rail corridor can be upgraded for this “Pullman” idea (not so sure about that one) then it can be used by an expanded tourist train and the hiker/paddler train that I have described here many times. 3 for the price of one.

    Everyone needs to be realistic. The Lake Placid to Saranac Lake rail trail is not going to generate the 240,000 users they estimate. First of all it would be so crowded that it would not be any fun and second it is based on some assumptions that I just can’t imagine being true.

    Besides you can always tear up the rails later if these ideas flop. Putting them back if the trail is a bust is never going to happen. It seems like common sense who “wins” the debate.

  6. Hope Frenette says:

    The only way this will be resolved is to open up the UMP (Unit Management Plan). It is a rediculous argument to say that no one will use the trail because some of it is remote. Plenty of people across the country travel great distances to utilize remote trails both on foot, by bike or snowmobile. There are numerous academic studies and articles that give credence to this. Just google rail trails, recreation trails, snowmobile trails, etc…. Just because you might not ride a bike to Old Forge from Tupper doesn’t mean someone else won’t. In fact thousands of people are already expressing their interest in doing so. People have already shown up in Tupper Lake from out of state to do so because they mistakenly believed that it was already built. That 240,000 users is based on a study done by a reputable organization who used the numbers garnenered from similar styled trails in other rural areas across the country. It wasn’t just a made up number. This is a large state and an even bigger country, 240,000 is a drop in the bucket. How many people come to climb the High Peaks or ski at Whiteface? This trail not only benefits tourists it also benefits the local population. It enhances our lifestyle and brings new people and business to the area. Those are the facts, folks and ASR has yet to be able to dispute them.

  7. Peter Hahn says:

    The train ride from Saranac Lake to Tupper Lake is truly gorgeous. Tourists riding the train from Lake Placid could have a great ride and then visit the Wild Center (if there was some way to connect the two).

  8. Hope Frenette says:

    Peter, The bike ride would be even better, and there is a recreation trail plan that will get you to the Wild Center from the rail trail. The 200,000 visitors at Rollins Pond and Fish Creek would have a short 7 mile scenic bike ride into Tupper to visit the shops and Wild Center. No shuttle needed. Tupper residents could bike out the swim at Fish Creek and bike back for a day excursion. I personally look forward to riding my bike from Tupper to Old Forge and camping along the way. Now, that is an exciting possibility!

  9. Carlie says:

    Hey here’s an idea….move the tourist train on those beautiful new tracks out in Newton Falls that nobody’s using…it’s completely in line with the ASR business motto. “We won’t know the impact until it’s complete,” Well I believe it’s complete and the impact is obvious…a big fat NADA. Time for a new idea folks.

  10. Peter Hahn says:

    Put the bikes on the train.

  11. Hope Frenette says:

    Boring! I’m not interested in riding a train when I can ride my bike. The pace of the bike ride is more condusive to appreciating the view and immersing yourself into the enviroment. It is not whizzing by the view. You can stop and smell the balsam or the swamp, enjoy a picnic by a stream or a swim in a pond. You are not limited by schedules and certain stops. You can start when you want and finish when you want. You can do it all at once or do it in stages. Recreation trail users are known to repeat usage while tourist train riders typically do the ride once. Recreation trails promote growth and stability in communities while tourist trains provide amusement.

  12. Ron Brown says:

    I’ve been following this whole arguement with much interest. I live in the Youngstown, Ohio area and always thought of New York as being above average when it comes to providing recreational activities. Here in Youngstown area the local and state govt. have switched over many old and unused railroad tracks into recreational trails. Theres not a day goes by that I don’t see someone using the trail near my house. It’s a huge success that states like New York should look into. I can see the trail helping the communities along the trail greatly.

  13. Paul says:


    I don’t think the trail idea is a bad one. It is a pretty good one. But I think that if you could use the rails for a train that could transport hikers and paddlers into some new remote trail heads it would be a truly unique thing. It could maybe even transport mountain bikers like some of the railroads out west.

    I would suggest setting up a train similar to this one in South West Colorado.

    I understand that 240K is a legitimate number. But the math tells me that the trail (lets say 6 months of biking) would have over 1300 hundred people on it every day. In that short stretch. Either that is right and very not fun and crowded or not realistic? We better make sure we have a good horn on our bikes to make sure we can navigate the crowds of riders.

  14. The Original Larry says:

    A rail network in the North Country would be a great idea if it was commercially viable, but it’s not. Expanded bike trails would also be fine and would also be uneconomical. Either way, no tax dollars should be spent on whimsical projects that will benefit only limited numbers of people and produce no return on investment.

  15. Paul says:

    “Here in Youngstown area the local and state govt. have switched over many old and unused railroad tracks into recreational trails.”

    See these rails-to-trails are not too unique. As a biker they also seem to me to be kind of flat and boring. But yes some folks like that kind of ride even if it is with lots of other riders like you see on Cape Cod and in other places where they have busy rails-to-trails.

    Also why don’t we convert some of the many already abandoned rail corridors in the Adirondacks as a start. That would be a quick way to convince folks that when you build it they will come.

  16. Paul says:

    “Expanded bike trails would also be fine and would also be uneconomical.”

    Wake up man. How is that? Have you read the details and know anything about what you are commenting on. The bike trail idea would not cost any taxpayer dollars. The salvage of the rails will pay for the other work.

    Now you can go back to sleep!

  17. Carlie says:

    Funny how train supporters complain about bike paths being “too crowded.” I’m sure you would be thrilled to have a crowded train. Another silly argument (shaking my head) I say bring them! That’s called success people…lol

  18. Paul says:

    Charlie, the trail won’t be too crowded that is the point. I am not a train supporter I support both ideas. Read the comments again.

  19. Paul says:

    I should have said not “only” a train supporter.

  20. Hope Frenette says:

    I’ve been on the Durango Silverton. It is mostly a tourist operation that also provides transportation to remote areas that are not accessible by any other means, short of walking. There are very, very few remote areas of State Land, in the ADK Park, that are not accessible via car or boat. A train is not required to get there from here. While I can appreciate the excursion, it does nothing to promote growth in the communities. It provides an amusement for tourist and a novelty transportation venue. I’m more concerned with community growth and the attraction of bringing in outdoor enthusiest to our area to stay. A tourist train will not do that. If it had, then we would be hearing that from ASR. I have even done research looking for such information and I have not found anything to date. There are hundreds of studies done both before and after the creation of recreation trails which point to the benefits that the trails bring to communities both urban and rural. Communities in the ADKs are at a tipping point economically and something bold and visionary like this ADK Rail Trail traversing diagonally across the Park, linking the various communities both promotes the ADK region as well as encouraging the general public to get out and explore other communities for more than an hour or two at a shot. We live in the ADKs for the lifestyle not for the tourist attractions. Let’s do something that supports the active lifestyle that people are looking for.

  21. Brian Mann says:

    Folks –

    A reminder to keep it civil. At the VERY worst, the people who disagree with you want to either operate a tourist train or build a recreational trail.

    There are no villains in this story. And there are good arguments to be made on both sides.

    Read what other posters are saying carefully, then comment. And save the spleen for issues that warrant it.

    Make the case for what you’d like to see happen, but also listen to what others are saying. And be respectful. And even friendly.

    –Brian, NCPR

  22. Carlie says:

    My bad Paul..I misread, but this is an argument I’ve heard before, no disrespect

  23. Carlie says:

    btw it’s Carlie, not Charlie

  24. Walker says:

    Brian, you say there are no villains, but if I had spent the last twenty years trying to get the ASR up and running, I certainly wouldn’t be viewing ARTA’s relentless insistence on removing the tracks from this corridor as friendly.

    I would be interested to know what effect it would have on ARTA’s plans if the state were to say “OK, we’ll take up the rails, but the $6 million scrap value goes to the state.” I have the sense that ARTA is thinking that if they can rip up the rails, they’ll start with a nice little cash resource. Is that why the existing tracks are so much more attractive than the idea of using rail right of ways where the tracks are already gone?

    As someone who has some experience pouring blood sweat and tears into trying to get something off the ground, I have huge sympathy for ASR’s position. ARTA is essentially saying “you’ve failed!” Well they haven’t failed. They have achieved plenty. But it’s often true that things go slower than you hope they will. How long did it take to get the Community Store built? The Wild Center? The Adirondack Carousel?

    There are other, unused rail corridors in the Adirondacks. Let’s see ARTA prove their rosy claims on one of them before they go and destroy someone else’s work.

  25. Jim McCulley says:

    Peter Hahn, Two points first the railroad people were here first. In fact they promised to restore the line all the way to Lake Placid at class III track standard at no cost to the taxpayer. Obviously neither of these promises have been realized. The UMP that was done in 1996 stated at the end of the five year test period it would be re examined. If not successful the tracks would be removed and the salvage would pay for it to be turned into the recreational trail. ARTA is just asking for the plan to be followed,nothing new here.
    Secondly proclaiming a great view from Saranac Lake to Tupper Lake is not exactly true. If you ride a highrailer and have a 360 degree view at 10 mph the view is nice. If you ride a train traveling at 50mph and a 20 degree view out of the window, the scenery is dramatically less of a draw. This trip which I have done many times consist of a wall of trees and 10 seconds of open areas where your views are unrestricted. As a bicyclist or hiker or snowmobiler you can stop and enjoy the view at any point making this a draw for these groups.

  26. The Original Larry says:

    I read the plan, especially the part that talks about federal funding, community grants, etc. for this project. I also read the part that says salvage would be a major source of funding. That same paragraph notes that salvage materials are commodities whose prices fluctuate. I must have missed the part that explains who will pay for ongoing maintenance, repairs and so on. I’m only against spending tax dollars on non-revenue producing schemes that do not have widespread public benefits.

  27. Paul says:

    Brain, thanks. My comment above had info that was unnecessary.

    Hope, having grown up in Saranac Lake and having much of my family still there (and I spend much of my summer there as well) I totally share your goals for the communities.

    I understand that the train idea I suggest would be somewhat different that the one I described out west (it is an amazing place where that train runs isn’t it?). But I think that one here that brought hikers to new trail-heads (despite their proximity to roads) AND brought paddlers (with their canoes on the train) is a pretty unique idea, and one that might be seen as a bit of an adventure that could be a big draw.This same train (like you saw in Durango) could be ridden not only by hikers and paddlers but folks that are just along for the ride and who might want to stay at rail-side hotels as part of the package. The problem with the current tourist train (and that is definitely boring!) is that it is like a short train to nowhere. I am shocked at how many people still ride the thing despite that fact. Make it go somewhere and do some cool stuff along the way and it could be very different.

    This same rails could have that Pullman train on it, but again I am pretty skeptical. But the more use of the rails (and sharing of the costs to upgrade the tracks) the better. Perhaps a little success!

    The fight over tearing up the rails is going to delay a trail for so long that you might as well try and work with what is partially there already, because I agree there is a bit of a “tipping point” to deal with.

  28. Hope Frenette says:

    All the talk about building other trails is good. The more trails the better in my estimation. What these other promoted trail ideas do not do is connect these communities together. That is the crux of the situation. The ADK Rail Trail promotes the entire ADK region it connects several communities that would benefit. They also cannot combine bicycle use and snowmobile use due to the classifications of Wilderness. The Travel Corridor provides the State Land classification that allows bicycle and snowmobile use to connect these communities. I have yet to see another trail proposal that does all of this. No one has connected Tupper Lake with Saranac Lake or Tupper Lake with Old Forge. While Saranac Lake has taken ARTA’s research and springboarded off of it to resurrect it’s shelved recreation trail, none of those trails connect to Tupper Lake. In fact Saranac Lake will benefit greatly with their own advanced trail network plans as well as being able to connect to Lake Placid. Old Forge has the advantage of turning their vast network of snowmobile trails into biking trails when the snow is gone but they don’t connect to any other ADK community. The State Snowmobile Trail Plan envisioned a Canadian style trail from Binghampton to Canada utilizing the Travel Corridor. How great would that be for all the communities along the corridor. There are NO, bicycle trails that encourage visiting other communities. Having our own trails is a good thing being able to connect them is even better.

  29. Paul says:

    Carlie! Sorry about that.

  30. Walker says:

    Has ARTA raised any funds? How much? Are they prepared to deal with the issue of finding an environmentally sound and economical method of disposing of the treated railroad ties?

  31. Walker says:

    “Old Forge has the advantage of turning their vast network of snowmobile trails into biking trails when the snow is gone but they don’t connect to any other ADK community. ”

    Why haven’t they done so?

  32. Walker says:

    “All the talk about building other trails is good. The more trails the better in my estimation.”

    That’s great! Why not start work on some then?

  33. Hope Frenette says:

    I think that it is terrific that all these communities are dusting off trail plans and coming up with additional trail ideas. Some of these plans even have funding that may even disappear if they don’t get going. I’m glad that this contoversy has spurred communities to this dialogue. ARTA has put their cards on the table and has a great deal of support from the people who live here. In my estimation that counts for alot.
    ANCA and REDC are pretty good at telling communities want they should do but not so good at listening to what they actually want.

  34. Paul says:

    Didn’t they just spend a few million putting down new rails near Big Moose? How in the world do we ever think that you would get them all pulled up in any kind of short order?

    If you don’t do the whole thing the rail-to-trail idea will suffer from the same problem that the train has. A bike trail to nowhere.

  35. Paul says:

    “ARTA has put their cards on the table and has a great deal of support from the people who live here. In my estimation that counts for alot.”

    That is for sure. Nothing gets done up there without local support. And getting it ain’t easy! Many of my friends up in SL think even a mention of any train idea is a capital offense, so they are on board (sorry couldn’t help it). So you certainly have some momentum.

  36. Peter Hahn says:

    Jim McCulley – wouldnt it make more sense to connect the snowmobile trails in Old Forge with the Tug Hill trails? Thats where all the snow is and most of the snow mobile activity. I realize that doesnt do the Lake Placid Snow mobile club any good (or Scott Thompson).

  37. Hope Frenette says:

    Walker, without utilizing the rail corridor you cannot get motorized vehicles or bicyles from Old Forge to Tupper because of Wilderness classification of land between the 2 communities. The only way that I’ve been able to determine would have to cross lakes and rivers and private lands. The rail corridor is the most logical place to keep this type of traffic. It is already designated a travel corridor.

  38. Sonja says:

    Well Walker, the first immediate effect would be instant snowmobiling and the millions of tourist dollars that brings. This particular line is ideal because of all the towns and villages it goes through (which benefits many rather than few) and it is completely owned by the taxpayers where other lines are complicated with multiple owners. I believe that is one of the options in the UMP to use the steel to pay for a trail. And even if the money from the steel was thrown into the big (empty) state coffers, this is still the cheaper option. MUCH cheaper. As far as the train being a success or failure I guess that’s a matter of how you define them. Being that I’m a business owner I go the traditional route in that if you can’t make money to support your operations, if you’re business is insolvent, and/or if you have to alter how you determine your ridership, you fail. What value does one tourist train dollar have if it cost ten to earn it. This does not belong to the ASR, it belongs to the citizens of NYS and if we decide something new has to be done, sorry Mr. Branson, you had to have known that this isn’t a lifetime deal. It was suppose to be reviewed after 5 yrs, it’s now 20. Interesting that you mention the community store…private money.

  39. Hope Frenette says:

    Peter, as we found out this weekend at Snodeo in Old Forge, there is a huge contingent of snowmobilers who want to travel to Tupper Lake and beyond. There is also a large group of Saranac Laker and Tupper Lake folks that want to travel to Old Forge. Why do we want to send them to Tug Hill? Many of the folks I met are from the Tug Hill area. Snowmobilers love to travel long distances when they go out. Let’s take advantage of that. The only thing stopping them right now are the tracks.

  40. Rick says:

    Why hasnt anyone pointed out that you cannot rent a car in Lake Placid?

  41. Hope Frenette says:

    Walker, Google “Iron Horse Preservation”. They are one of several not for profits that advise and/or build trails with rail salvage.

  42. Jim McCulley says:

    Peter, the trails in Old Forge are connected to the Tug Hill. They are not connected to the rest of the Adirondacks like St Lawrence County Franklin and Essex. This is not a safe or reliable trail because of the tracks, removal of the tracks would instantly connect the entire region. As far as snowmobiling activity Franklin and St Lawrence county has some of the best riding and if inter connected would have the economic impact of putting Whiteface in the center of Franklin County. This is especially important for Tupper Lake being just a 1 hour ride for 4-5 thousands snowmobilers every weekend. Old Forge as the sales tax cow for Herkimer County (best months Dec-Mar) and Lake Placid as the sales tax cow for Essex with Tupper in the middle a trail can do nothing but help.

  43. Hope Frenette says:

    Rick, I think you can rent a car at the airport in Lake Clear. There is not enough demand.

  44. Carlie says:

    When the train first rolled into SL I thought..”wow, this is pretty cool, different” But unfortunately it has gone from being cool and different to just being “there.” There are many ardent train riders, the problem is there just aren’t enough. Other issues I have with expanding the train….The MASSIVE amount of taxpayer money required to target the most miniscule user group. The time to have both has come and gone…we simply can’t afford it. Another, the time it takes to get anything done is painfully slow. It just takes too long to make any progress. Look how long it’s taking for the trail-next to rail between Lake Placid and SL?? Good lord, I’ll be an old lady by then (thank god the trail will be flat lol) Another issue…schedules!!! I’m an avid paddler and although it sounds appealing to train to paddle somewhere, I would NOT want to be bound by a schedule. When I go on vacation that’s one thing I truly avoid. As far as people coming in by train…how are they going to get around? You HAVE to have some form of transportation or they will never truly get to experience the area. There’s a good reason why the train isn’t cutting it and it’s not for lack of funds thrown at it. It’s because it’s uber expensive and incredibly inefficient to travel to remote areas by train..

  45. Paul says:

    rental car info on the in-box. quite a service. make sure you give some $ to ncpr.

  46. Paul says:

    bikers don’t seem too welcome in the Adirondacks (especially in some of the more remote tows that will be part of this) sometimes that will have to change for this to be a success.

  47. Paul says:

    sorry towns, iPad!

  48. Hope Frenette says:

    What small towns would that be? Lake Placid, Ray Brook, Saranac Lake, Lake Clear, Tupper Lake, Piercefield, Long Lake, Beaver River, Big Moose, Thendara and/or Old Forge? I don’t think that any of these communities have anything against bicycle riders. Most if not all have residents who ride bikes to commute as well as recreate. Not to mention all the kids that ride for fun.

  49. Peter Hahn says:

    Jim McCulley – Im not worried about the train going 50 mph in our lifetime. But those snowmobiles arent going that slow either.

  50. Tony Goodwin says:

    I find it rather difficult to respond to anything Bill Branson said in this morning’s interview since he never said what facts ARTA had that were wrong; and he never said what exactly their plans were or what they would cost. Mr. Branson said that they would release a “public business plan” at some time in the future; but for now we can only go on what the ASR has actually done to date. Starting in 1992 with a small tourist excursion out of Thendara, ASR has expanded to four separate operations (Thendara, Utica-Thendara, Lake Placid, and the Polar Express) and even reports carrying over a million passengers in their 20 year history. In their second year of operation, they reported over 70,000 riders when it was just a Thendara-based excursion. More recently, with four operations they claim a similar number – and that’s with counting many of their riders twice if it’s a round trip with a layover. I therefore wonder what sort of expansion ASR plans in the face of fairly flat demand. Their most recent (May, 2012) study by Stone Consulting said full restoration for passenger service would bring 7,000 riders annually. The low-end estimate for rail trail users in the July, 2012 Rails to Trail Conservancy (RTC) study was 70,000.

    As for the suggestion by Peter Hahn and others that ARTA first work on other abandoned corridors, no other corridor would actually link major communities together and none link the snowmobile trails north to south. Furthermore, with one exception, all have been taken over for other uses or in some way blocked. The one exception, the Lake Clear to Malone corridor, has been “taken over” by ATVs, which would be difficult to dislodge and is less aesthetic as it is under a power line most of the way.

    Yes, sections of the trail will be remote; but any rescue can be carried out via a vehicle. The fact that one can’t be rescued by vehicle from Mt. Marcy hasn’t discouraged hikers from making that climb.

    As for the notion that there would be great demand for a service to transport boaters, bikers, and hikers to remote locations, I have yet to see a list of such places or a timetable by which the service would be provided.

    Finally, the figure for salvage value in the RTC study was based on the experience of other conversions. Granted that scrap prices do vary, but the net figure includes the cost of dealing with the disposal of ties that can’t be resold for later use. And the Unit Management Plan clearly states that this value should be used for the trail conversion.

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