Thursday, December 28, 2017

Janeway: Let’s Rethink Future of Tahawus Rail Corridor

oil tanks in the adirondacksGovernor Andrew Cuomo, the Adirondack Council and many others have offered well earned thanks to Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett, whose subsidiary Union Tank Car Company announced the day after Christmas the planned removal of its derelict oil tank rail cars from the Adirondack Forest Preserve.

This is a victory for the preservation of the wild character and wilderness of the Adirondack Park and efforts to foster more sustainable vibrant communities. After those who deserve it take a victory lap, there is an opportunity to switch from defense to offense and secure a more positive future for the Tahawus spur above North Creek.

The Adirondack Council is among those who are very pleased that Berkshire Hathaway’s Union Tank Car Company responded to requests from Governor Andrew Cuomo, our member advocates, partners and lawyers and overruled the railroad company it was paying to store these cars. Adirondack Council members and advocates wrote more than 1,000 letters to Buffett since the end of November. The railroad wouldn’t remove the cars, but Berkshire Hathaway will. Its subsidiary, Union Tank Car, said it would remove the cars by the middle of January, find a more appropriate location, and never store them in the Adirondack Park again. For that, we are very grateful.

We are also thankful for and support Governor Cuomo’s call to rail road operator Iowa Pacific Holdings to stop storing oil tank cars on the ‘forever wild’ Forest Preserve, which is a national treasure that is protected by both the state Constitution and its status as a National Landmark. Creating an oil tank car junkyard here should be forever out of the question. We support the Governor’s commitment to ‘exhaust all legal options to end this (storage) and keep the constitutionally protected Adirondacks forever wild’ forever.

Iowa Pacific Holdings LLC of Chicago refused to stop storing derelict oil tank cars in the Adirondacks when confronted with a “cease and desist” order by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Instead, it demanded millions of dollars.

In December Governor Cuomo and his Department of Environmental Conservation, working with the Adirondack Park Agency and with assistance from Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Adirondack Council attorneys, filed an initial petition with the federal Surface Transportation Board (STB). The papers submitted to the STB calls on the board to grant exceptions to some of its procedural requirements consistent with past STB precedent, in advance of a filing of a state petition for adverse abandonment. It’s a multi-step process that would be followed by more filings (and opportunities for other stakeholders and the public to weigh in). Included in subsequent filings would be documents that provide much greater detail as to the basis of the request.

The State’s US Senators and Congressional Representatives input could be important. While Union Tank Car has announced it will remove its cars from IHP’s de facto junkyard, IHP is still storing a dozen or more additional cars on the line that don’t belong to Union Tank Car, Berkshire Hathaway or its other subsidiaries, Procor and Marmon.

The removal of remaining rail cars is necessary and will complement efforts by the state and other stakeholders to chart a more appropriate future for the rail corridor.

The holiday announcement was another important step in creating a long term, sustainable use for this travel corridor that is appropriate for the heart of the Adirondack Park. Any future use should be both environmentally and aesthetically appropriate, consistent with the wilderness character of the Adirondack Park, and supportive of sustainable, vibrant communities.

New York’s Adirondack Park is one of the world’s largest and oldest parks. It protects most of the wilderness and old-growth forest remaining in the Northeast. Its Forest Preserve has been protected as “forever wild” by the state Constitution since 1894. Although it is owned and administered by New York State, the entire 2.7-million-acre Adirondack Forest Preserve is further protected as a National Landmark.

The controversial junkyard was being assembled on a railroad that leads from the ski resort hamlet of North Creek to an early-19th Century iron mine 22 miles into the forest. The railroad terminates between the Hudson and Opalescent rivers at the old Tahawus mine, on the edge of the park’s famous High Peaks Wilderness Area.

Several miles of the railroad cross the Forest Preserve. The tracks also cross the Upper Hudson River, and run along the Boreas River, both of which are protected as “Scenic” under the NYS Wild, Scenic and Recreational Rivers Program.

Tahawus’s iron mines were among the first in America, but failed due to impurities (ilmenite) in the ore. A century later, as World War II began, the federal government realized ilmenite was needed for the construction of titanium-alloy war ships and airplanes. It seized a temporary right-of-way for rail access to the mines to secure strategic materials needed for the war. New York objected, but chose not to challenge the seizure in court.

The rights to use the line were set to expire after the war ended. Instead, the rights were extended until 2063. Today, Iowa Pacific Holdings LLC of Chicago (IPH) claims it is leasing the rights to use the line. Those rights, if any, could be extinguished if the State succeeds in an adverse abandonment proceeding with the Federal Surface Transportation Board. IPH says the tanker junkyard qualifies as a railroad operation. Its president Ed Ellis told the local media he plans to store as many as 2,500 tanker cars on the railroad. At 58-feet- long, 2,000 tankers would occupy 21.96 miles of track. This demonstrates an intent that is not consistent with operation of the corridor as a railroad, or in the public good for which the line was established.

A wall of rusty rail cars would create a barrier to wildlife, imperil water quality and undermine the state’s efforts to promote this region as a wilderness recreation destination. New York has spent tens of millions of dollars acquiring new Forest Preserve in this portion of the Adirondacks over the past 20 years.

The controversy has been featured in national media outlets and has even inspired the release of an original protest song entitled Junkyard Express, by renowned Adirondack folk singer Dan Berggren.

In general, federal transportation law governs railroads. However, there are multiple limits on Federal preemption and states can to enforce environmental regulations that are stricter than federal law as long as the action doesn’t prevent the lawful operation of a railroad or interfere with interstate commerce.

Local residents, officials and conservationists say the used rail car storage plan would be a linear junkyard, not a railroad. They want the cars already stored there removed. Town and county officials have also expressed their opposition.

The Adirondack Council hired and is still retaining special attorneys in Albany and Washington, D.C. to secure legal remedies to the junkyard under state and federal law. It is also working with state officials to urge IPH to remove the junkyard.

The Council and local residents had supported IPH’s previous plans to run a scenic passenger railroad and to haul mine tailings from the former mine site. But the company has failed in those businesses. It is instead renting space on the line to companies that pay to park derelict tankers until they can be refitted, re-purposed or scrapped. Many stored there now are the unsafe DOT-111 models that destroyed most of Lac Megantic, Quebec when they derailed in 2014, killing 47 people.

Now with the positions of various parties clear there is an opportunity for a coalition to press for a new vision for this travel corridor up into the heart of the Adirondack Park and the High Peaks Wilderness area, with unique access to towns such as Minerva and Newcomb. This corridor could be a great asset for the Park and communities that host access points to the popular Forest Preserve and state waters. The corridor might host a multi-use recreational trail, or something else. State ownership might or might not be in everyone’s interest. We have a unique opportunity.

Photo of rail cars arriving October 30, 2017.

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Willie Janeway

Willie Janeway is the Executive Director of the Adirondack Council, a privately funded, not-for-profit organization dedicated to ensuring the ecological integrity and wild character of the Adirondack Park.

The Council envisions a park composed of large wilderness areas, surrounded by working farms and forests and vibrant, local communities.

The Council carries out its mission through research, education, advocacy and legal action. Council members and supporters live in all 50 United States.

27 Responses

  1. Don Pachner says:

    Excellent points, Willie. At the International Trails Symposium in Dayton, OH last May, I heard about some successful Rail With Trail corridors with multi-use paths adjacent to active rail lines. In my mind, it serves two purposes…first, it provides a legitimate recreational opportunity in a RR right of way that would not otherwise be used for any recreational purpose, and, second, it creates an aware segment of the recreating public that will be sensitive to uses such as parking of derelict oil tanker cars along the corridor, and provide an active base of support for environmentally-sensitive uses. The Rail With Trail plans offer the same type of legal protections to the RR as the Rails to Trails program, with the advantage of not eliminating the active rail line.

    • Dick Carlson says:

      I would love to know where these rail and trail projects are. Seems like an either or thing – rail travel or remove tracks to create a rail trail.

      • Larry Roth says:

        I’m so glad you asked that question, because I have an answer:

        “At the time of publication (2013), RTC located 161 rails-with-trails in 41 states, a 260 percent increase since 2000. Rails-with-trails represent almost 10 percent of all rail-trails in America. Another 60 rail-with-trail projects across the country are currently in various stages of development.

        Out of the tens of thousands of fatalities on railroad corridors in recent decades, only one involved a trail user on a rail-with-trail. This suggests that a well-designed pathway provides a safe travel alternative and reduces the incentive to trespass or use the tracks as a shortcut.

        Class I railroads continue to express formal opposition to the concept of trail development within or adjacent to their corridors. However, smaller private railroad companies and public rail authorities have reached agreements with trail managers on rail-with-trail development that have satisfactorily addressed any concerns about risk and liability.

        There is a growing trend of rail-with-trail development alongside local and regional transit corridors. Fifteen percent of the active rails-with-trails identified in this study are located adjacent to mass transit corridors.
        The vast majority of the rails-with-trails interviewed for this report are insured by an existing local umbrella policy, similar to most rail-trails and greenways.”

        There’s a report available for download that has all this and more information on rails with trails. It was prepared by the Rails to Trails Conservancy. Yes – them. Here’s the link to the website where you can find the report:

        As they say for an intro:

        “Rails-with-trails are safe, common, and increasing in number. These are the standout findings of America’s Rails-with-Trail Report, a defining new study on the development of multi-use trails alongside active freight, passenger and tourist rail lines.”

  2. Rick Hoffman says:

    Great idea to be proactive and plan for the use of the rail corridor. Adversarial proceedings are the wrong forums to address these use issues comprehensively.

  3. Larry Roth says:

    There’s been a lot of excitement/anger over the storage of empty tank cars on the rail line – the loaded words junkyard and extortion have been tossed around and there’s even been what might be called hysteria. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater just yet though.

    Agreed, storing rail cars on the line is not exactly in keeping with the region’s best interests. The problem remains, as a private company, Iowa Pacific needs to get some return on the investments they’ve made in the corridor, which includes a lot of track work and other things. However, Iowa Pacific is more than just this one rail line and their overall health as a company is not good. Their inability to put the financial resources they need into operations and promotion here have been a key reason for their failure to meet expectations.

    The anti-rail groups will seize on this as proof that no railroad can succeed, and the tracks should be pulled. Once that happens, they’ll never go back. However, developing a purely trail only use of the corridor isn’t exactly going to help the region all that much either.

    A working railroad can create jobs directly, draw visitors from outside the region, and also put money into the region with local purchases and partnerships with local businesses.

    What’s needed is an operator who can continue to invest in the line, one with the financial resources to promote it and provide adequate levels of service. A better arrangement with CP Rail for the trackage rights out of Saratoga Springs would help as well.

    The danger is that Governor Cuomo will use this for short term political gain. He can score a lot of points as an environmental champion if he shuts down railcar storage and drives Iowa Pacific out – but what happens after that? The state has not shown a lot of interest in addressing the needs of the area in prior years…

    Until tourist efforts using the line started up (and Iowa Pacific was not the first operator), the corridor had sat neglected. North Creek and the other towns in the area have been losing jobs and people; reviving the rail line is one way of addressing that. Certainly the historic station at North Creek and the area around it is in a lot better shape than it was just a few years ago.

    There used to be a connection off the line that went into Warrensburg – the bridge over the Hudson is still there, though its condition is uncertain and the tracks are gone. Would restoring that connection spur redevelopment?

    Trail development in the corridor alongside the rails would be another welcome development. The rail line could become another gateway to the High Peaks, as it was for Teddy Roosevelt.

    Here’s another idea. Governor Cuomo has proposed a hut to hut system of Yurts for “glamping” in the Boreas Ponds area. What about taking out the tank cars, and replacing them with huts on flat cars? This could be a seasonal use, or year round – and they could always be moved out easily if desired. This would be a way to establish a higher level of recreation with minimal impact in an area that has been lacking these kinds of facilities.

    None of this will be easy, or cheap, or will happen quickly – but things worth doing seldom are.

    • Boreas says:


      Interesting ideas. I think I would prefer a modest, re-purposed boxcar with windows and a porch or better yet, a luxury Pullman car to a yurt on a flatcar. But It is an interesting idea – especially if placed every 1/4 mile or so on side-tracks. Portable hunting camps. They could probably be fitted with sanitary tanks and propane heat. Modest solar power on the roof? I suppose a few wheelchair-accessible platforms could also be built, but some sort of access road or trail would be needed. Another option would be to use an atypical, custom chassis for the platform that uses short wheels and is low to the ground for easier access. If the cars were parked on side-tracks, they could be serviced daily by a light electric or propane-powered canteen train to serve meals.

      This is where some entrepreneurship in the Newcomb area could come in handy. None of this is in the current lease agreement with IP. As I have mentioned before, I would rather see development of this sort along this corridor than in the nearby Boreas Ponds area. But as you say, it ain’t gonna come cheap, and needs to pass environmental muster.

      • adkDreamer says:

        @Larry, @Boreas – Guys, please. The advent of ‘Build it, they will come”, the coined term via the movie ‘Field of Dreams’, is simply that – a dream. We all can fabricate any manner of ideas (dreams), however it is vitally more productive to prove that the the public at large has the demand for such ‘rail camping’ that would justify the infrastructure investment. There simply isn’t any evidence that camping on rails is in demand by the public.

        • Boreas says:

          Who ever heard of a phone you carry in your pocket?? How many unused railways exist in essentially wilderness areas? Creating a market from nothing is what entrepreneurs do.

          • adkDreamer says:

            @Boreas. I would argue that the utility demand and market depth/breadth of a ‘phone you carry in your pocket’ and camping in a rail car as two very different sales propositions and hardly comparable. I do not know ‘how many unused railways exist in essentially wilderness areas’. I also believe at the 30,000 foot level that entrepreneurs create markets from something (eg: a defined demand, a target market, and a business plan).

            • Boreas says:

              “…a ‘phone you carry in your pocket’ and camping in a rail car as two very different sales propositions and hardly comparable.”


              Sure they are – a demand created from nothing. The scale may be different, but not the principle.

              Isn’t the hut-to-hut plan envisioned by the governor such a demand? Aren’t hunting/fishing camps in demand, especially since they are being removed from Boreas Ponds? Aren’t we looking for an alternative use for the corridor? Aren’t we looking to help local economies and creating jobs? This may provide a legal way of providing shelters where normally they would not be allowed. I am not saying any of this is feasible. It is simply a possible alternative to the status quo. We are just spit-balling here – which was the gist of the article. At spit-ball sessions, nothing should be ruled out. People/animals may already be using the stored boxcars for shelters!

              • adkDreamer says:

                @Boreas. Demand for products and/or services are never created from nothing, unless there is demand for nothing. This article does not provide any detail for your questions, which appear to be endless. Perhaps you could write a ‘spit-ball’ article containing the multitude of ideas you and others have and, as a matter of course, support your ideas with the magical demand the rises from the ashes of nothingness. But I digress, perhaps the best and most economical use for now would, in fact, to do nothing.

                • Boreas says:

                  The questions were for you, not the article. You ignored them all. What myself and others are saying is that there are potential markets.

                  • adkDreamer says:

                    @Boreas. You are correct, I will ignore all of these ‘Build it they will come’ questions until I see a viable business plan that isn’t some misplaced circus planted inside the Adirondack Park that essentially becomes a flash in the pan and goes bust inside of 5 years. Potential markets you say – show me the evidence that supports this.

        • Larry Roth says:

          “There simply isn’t any evidence that camping on rails is in demand by the public.”

          Really? Here’s from a quick search.

          • adkDreamer says:

            @Larry Roth. I don’t see any of those as a viable enterprises on the Tahawus Line. These themed rail services may work out west, or near centers of population (eg. the one near Lancaster, PA), however I have yet to see that sort of novelty in high demand here in the Adirondacks, especially when the destination is an open pit mine with tailings,crumbling infrastructure, and a toxic landscape. The value proposition most unique to the Adirondacks is: nothing. No made made anything, just the simple wild.

            • Boreas says:

              Doing nothing is not going to result in the corridor becoming “simple wild”, but rather more storage. I am all for wilderness as anyone here knows, but if we must live with the tracks, I would rather see people use them and not derelict rail cars.

            • Larry Roth says:

              You may not see any desire for this, but others disagree, and I think you’ll be surprised. Perhaps a desolate mine landscape is not a prime destination, but you’re missing the point. This is about the whole corridor, not just one point on it. That kind of camping experience could be a game changer.

              • adkDreamer says:

                @Larry Roth. I’m not missing any point, unless you are referring to a circus side-show camping on rails – build it they will come – business, which I believe is an extremely ill-conceived. Show me in the Adirondacks where there is or has been a profitable rail operation (with locomotive engines & cars) that investors have flocked to and the public have patronized with year over year double digit gains. I want to know who is this mysterious investor that will put up the capital required to purchase/lease & maintain a locomotive engine, rail cars with so fashioned camper cars & food kiosks, what with rail transport regulations, Dept of Health and hospitality regulations, a rail-borne sanitation system, the staff & expertise required to maintain such ‘demanded’ service, etc. Place it near Lake George and you might get the throngs of people renting and using this circus train, but not deep into the Adirondacks.

                • Larry Roth says:

                  You’re overthinking this. It doesn’t have to be an entire train with all the facilities you’re picturing. Think more like the huts found on hut to hut trail systems, except as rail cars or something similar. There are some basic supplies/facilities, but people pack in their own gear. That’s the simplest iteration; I’m not saying it can’t get more elaborate.

                  But as far as showing you rich investors lining up to get in on the ground floor (or rails), you might be surprised. The rails are already there – and can you think of a better way to offer this kind of camping under the constraints that apply? Done right, it should have minimal impact on the area, aside from enabling easier human access to the area.

                  Put it another way, if someone wanted to pursue this, would you be willing to see how it works out, or would you oppose it from the get go?

                  • adkDreamer says:

                    @Larry Roth. I do not believe I am overthinking, just healthy skepticism. I would like to see the business plan and the numbers – in my minds eye I do not see it as an invest-able business. The logistics are a nightmare to begin with. I am opposed to any man-made infrastructure in that corridor, specifically. Perhaps somewhere else like Old Forge or Lake George.

  4. Marcel Carrier says:

    State ownership might be the answer. I’m sure IHP would be happy to unload it’s lease for a price. A multi-use trail would preserve the rail bed for any future need for a rail line.

  5. LeRoy Hogan says:

    I will assume after the rail cars are pulled out, the area will become a ghost town rail corridor not doing anyone any good.

  6. Mick Finn says:

    Wouldn’t it be great if all the unemployed local folks repurposed the Masena aluminum plant into a rail car recycling facility. There’s money to be made in solving this problem! Just thinking out loud.

  7. Tedra Cobb says:

    Willie, I have been following this issue closely and greatly appreciate Governor Cuomo’s action and all of the efforts of state agencies, local governments, non-governmental organizations and citizens grappling with this problem. We still need a long-term solution, and our congressional representative should be an active and constructive part of the conversation. I support your call for a collaborative effort to “press for a new vision for this travel corridor up into the heart of the Adirondack Park and the High Peaks Wilderness area,” as well as your focus on the intertwined goals of protecting the Park and building resilient Adirondack communities. If I am elected to Congress next November, I will welcome the chance to help bring together federal, state and local representatives and other stakeholders to advance this conversation.

    – Tedra Cobb, 21st District Congressional Candidate

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