It comes as no surprise that the state has received hundreds of comments on its two-part proposal to (i) replace 34 miles of railroad tracks between Lake Placid and Tupper Lake with a recreational trail and (ii) rehabilitate 45 miles of tracks south of Tupper Lake to Big Moose.
The future of the state-owned rail corridor has been hotly debated for years, with supporters of the Adirondack Scenic Railroad pushing for the restoration of rail service along the entire line and supporters of a recreational trail calling for removal of all the tracks between Big Moose and Lake Placid.
The draft proposal released in June by the Department of Environmental Conservation and Department of Transportation was widely viewed as a compromise. The departments solicited public comments on the plan with the aim of making a final decision late this fall.
The Adirondack Almanack’s review of those comments — nearly 900 of them, obtained via a freedom-of-information request — reveals that both sides are sticking to their guns. Only a handful of people praised the compromise unconditionally.
Many of the comments (perhaps most) on both sides were form letters that made the same points in the same or similar language.
For years, the Adirondack Scenic Railroad has run tourist trains in the Old Forge region at the southern end of the line and between Saranac Lake and Lake Placid at the northern end. The tracks in between are used only a few times a year to bring trains to and from Lake Placid.
Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates formed in 2012 to lobby the state to remove the tracks north of Big Moose and create a trail for cycling, hiking, snowmobiling, and other recreation. ARTA contends that the rail corridor is underutilized and that a trail would attract far more tourists than the Lake Placid train does.
The railroad — which relies in large part on volunteers — argues that it already is attracting tourists and would attract many more if the state were to fix up the tracks between Big Moose and Saranac Lake.
Under the state’s proposal, the railroad would have to shut down the Lake Placid train, but it could keep in operation the Old Forge train (which has been more successful) and eventually extend rail service to Tupper Lake.
Some rail supporters likened the proposal to truncate the rail line to Solomon’s decision to cut a baby in half when two women each claimed the baby was hers. They argue that it makes little economic sense to terminate the railroad at Tupper Lake instead of Lake Placid, which is one of the Adirondack Park’s major tourist destinations.
“What kind of business model is it that invests money in transportation infrastructure (the rails and ties north of Big Moose) and then cuts off the two largest markets from that very same infrastructure?” asked Phil Gallos, a Saranac Lake resident who favors restoring rail service all the way to Lake Placid.
In separate letters, Gallos and Stephen Erman, a former economic analyst with the Adirondack Park Agency, both recommended restoring rail service at least as far as Saranac Lake. This would allow tourists to arrive by train to the Park’s largest community, located just nine miles west of Lake Placid, and would allow cyclists and others to enjoy a recreational trail between the two villages.
Erman urged that the trail between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake be paved for road biking (by both tourists and commuters) and for roller-skiing by athletes training for the Olympics. He also advocated for establishment of an unpaved trail that would go in and out of the corridor between Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake.
Removing the rails between Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake, Erman warned, would “undermine the financial viability of the Adirondack Scenic Railroad or any successor operation.”
Lee Keet, one of the founders of ARTA, called the proposal to extend rail service to Saranac Lake “a hail-Mary pass” that will do little to the boost the economy of local communities. “There is no data supporting ANY demand for passenger service …,” Keet told the Almanack in an email. “A five-hour ride to Saranac Lake is just ludicrous for both transportation and ‘scenic railroading’ purposes.”
A new argument for keeping the tracks is that they are being used by Rail Explorers, a business that started in early July. Operating out of the Saranac Lake depot, Rail Explorers rents pedal-powered carts that travel over the rails. Customers can ride as far as Lake Clear, six miles away. In its first 2½ months, Rail Explorers accommodated 10,000 riders.
The company urged its customers to write the state in favor of retaining the rails, and many did so, gushing about their experiences. “I recently spent a day on the rail and can honestly say it was the highlight of my trip to the Adirondacks,” wrote one customer. “I have been raving to my friends at home in South Carolina as well as those in NY. The rail explorers are a new and fun experience that should remain in the Adirondacks for a very long time.”
Keet told the Almanack that the popularity of the rail-bikes hints at the potential of a recreational trail, which would cost nothing to use. “The hundreds riding the rail bikes are only a ghost of the hundreds of thousands we expect to use foot, bike, wheelchair, skis, snowshoes, and various other mechanisms to visit this pristine country,” he said.
He also said Rail Explorers could move their operation to another part of the corridor such as Tupper Lake or Remsen.
But Alex Catchpoole, who runs Rail Explorers with his wife, described Saranac Lake as the ideal location for the business. “One of the reasons we chose Saranac Lake is its proximity to Lake Placid and the large tourism center that it represents,” he said in an email to the Almanack. “More importantly, though, it would be very difficult to find a stretch of railroad so perfectly suited to our operations as our current location between Saranac Lake and Lake Clear. This six-mile journey has beautiful scenery and a mix of gentle grades.”
Catchpoole said Rail Explorers is benefiting the local economy. “Our summer season was almost entirely sold out,” he said. “Many businesses in Saranac Lake, including retail, restaurants, and hotels, have reported a significant increase in foot traffic and customers due to visitors who have come from far and wide to ride with Rail Explorers. All of this would change if we relocated south of Tupper Lake. We now have 15 local employees who would be out of a job if we relocated. Rail Explorers in Saranac Lake is a hit for everyone except ARTA.”
A website called Save Mr. Webb’s Railroad generated support for the rails through an online petition. The petition asked people if the railroad should be restored, if they had ever ridden the railroad, and, if so, how often.
We counted 114 responses from the petitions, all in favor of Adirondack Scenic Railroad. Nearly a quarter of those weighing in, however, had never ridden the train. Of the 88 people who had, at least a quarter had done so only once (many people did not answer when asked how often they rode the train). In sum, at least 43 percent of the respondents had not ridden the train at all or had ridden it only once.
Likewise, ARTA and the New York State Snowmobile Association generated hundreds of form letters in favor of a recreational trail. Generally, these applauded the decision to remove the tracks between Lake Placid and Tupper Lake, but most urged the state to remove the tracks between Tupper Lake and Big Moose as well. They also asked the state not to fix up the tracks until commissioning an independent study into the feasibility of operating a tourist train between Big Moose and Tupper.
Many of the trail supporters are snowmobilers who say the rails interfere with their riding and pose a danger. One woman wrote DEC in an email: “The railroad tracks from Big Moose Station to Tupper Lake should be removed ASAP!!! My son Andy almost broke his back after hitting a rail connecting bolt and flipped over the handlebars … causing much damage to our sled, not to mention his pain for many weeks.”
Altogether, roughly 450 people wrote in favor of the trail and 420 wrote in favor of the railroad. The numbers are imprecise as some letters were emailed as attachments that were not available to us. Also, the numbers likely include some duplication. Some people wrote more than once or sent the same comments to both agencies.
One of the few people to write in favor of the state’s compromise was a fourth-grader who lives in Saranac Lake. “I like your decision to rip up the tracks that run through here and keep the tracks that go from Remsen to Tupper Lake. I think you’ve made a good compromise,” he said. “I like the compromise because if you do not make a compromise, and only chose one, then the other side would be mad.”
If you do make a compromise, though, you might make both sides mad.
Photos: Above, Adirondack Scenic Railroad train outside Saranac Lake (by Susan Bibeau); middle, tracks over Bog River south of Tupper Lake (by Phil Brown); and below, one of Rail Explorers’ rail bikes.