Four unprecedented March Nor’easters caused millions of dollars in damage, kept utilities scrambling to restore power, and disrupted transportation up and down the east coast in 2018.
Choosing policies that will make matters worse should be the last thing to do in New York State, but that is what is happening in the Adirondacks and the Catskills.
Those storms are what climate change looks like. Researchers attribute the strength and timing of the storms to the disruption of the Polar Vortex, changes in wind patterns that have left the Arctic much warmer than it should be this time of year because of global warming. Extreme weather events of all kinds are increasingly likely in the years ahead – it’s not just about snow.
Wait – what’s that you say? Climate change is a hoax? There’s no such thing? New York State apparently agrees with you. The Adirondack Park Agency draft environmental impact statement written to justify converting rails to trails contains not a single mention of climate change, global warming, or any other inconvenient truths. Zero. Zip. Nada. That’s even more astonishing when you realize how much outdoor recreation – like snowmobiling – is heavily affected by weather.
Over a quarter of the energy expended in the US goes to transportation. The carbon emissions created moving people and goods, comparable to emissions from power generation, contribute significantly to global warming. Railroads are the most energy-efficient means of land transport, but the US has invested heavily in highway-centric transportation for decades.
In the Adirondacks, the Adirondack Park Agency is hoping to make it easier to turn Adirondack railroads into trails. While trails are a public good, the question in the age of changing climate is, are they good enough to justify ripping out rail corridors?
Ulster County is turning a rail line that parallels a major Catskill transportation corridor into trails and disconnected rail segments. Ulster County Executive Mike Hein has made trails a focus of tourism at the expense of rail. He’s piggybacking off Governor Cuomo, who has an ambitious plan to cross New York State with the 750-mile Empire State Trail. This is being promoted as a major tourism effort and the bandwagon effect has kicked in.
Rail trails take no trucks off roads. With driving the only way to get to them, they paradoxically increase traffic on highways. They do little to make the state’s infrastructure or economy more resilient. They do little to reduce carbon emissions. They narrow the economic base of the state in regions that need more diversity, not less.
The APA proposal for Adirondack travel corridors lumps highways, railroads, and rail trails all together as though they were interchangeable. Measuring railroads against rail trails only as tourist attractions is not a proper comparison. Trails are recreation; railroads are transportation.
It might be different if the rail corridors in question were inactive – but all three have operating railroads on them, all three already contribute to tourism, and two are reviving freight service. Two of them also connect to Amtrak. All three operate wholly or in part over track owned by government – the “public-private partnerships” that are supposed to be the Holy Grail of the post Big Government age. All of them can be upgraded to full service with little disruption, as opposed to building brand new infrastructure.
The only difference between a tourist railroad and a “real” railroad in these cases is public policy and public investment. Replacing rails with trails caters to the shortsighted gratification of special interest groups and cheap/easy politics, not prudent governance. The current obsession with trails as the Magic Fix for struggling communities looks a lot like past fads for casinos, convention centers, giant shopping malls, etc. (See monorails, for how it works.)
Transportation is basic. Get it right, and much follows. Trying to live solely on tourism is like trying to live solely on junk food.
The rail lines in question once moved freight and provided passenger service as well as serving tourism. They each have a historic legacy. The only thing preventing building on their potential is a refusal to recognize the world has changed and a reluctance to make the necessary investments. We spent billions in the last century covering the land with highways and driving railroads out of business. Now we’re paying the price for that choice – and we still need transportation.
In the era of climate change, trading railroads for trails in places already full of trails is a bad deal. Any group, agency, or organization whose mission includes concern for the environment but looks no farther than the immediate gain of more trail miles – but not the trade-offs – is not doing its job. Trading rails for trails in the 21 st Century is like getting rid of lifeboats to make more room for deckchairs on the Titanic.
The contribution of two Adirondack railroads and one in the Catskills to dealing with climate change may seem insignificant — but enough small steps taken everywhere can and will make a difference. It’s about changing attitudes as much as anything. A person who needs to lose weight but can’t get around to dieting and going to the gym can still start by doing something as simple as taking the stairs instead of the elevator. The important thing is to start, and go on from there.
The Netherlands operate their trains with an electrified rail system running on 100% wind power. There’s a plan to bring that concept to America and expand on it. Biodiesel, hybrid locomotives, even hydrogen fuel cell trains all offer immediate ways to reduce carbon emissions. The rest of the world is investing in rail systems in a coordinated strategy that includes all transport modes, even trails. Only America rips up rail corridors for trails while still subsidizing everything that competes with railroads.
It’s about more than reducing carbon emissions. Railroads increase resiliency, vital in a world increasingly subject to climate disruption. They do it by diversifying the economy. If something affects tourism, not just natural disasters, but a recession, a terror attack, etc. the idea is to have something else to fall back on. Railroads can generate economic activity apart from tourism, like transloading operations. Concentrating on tourism at the expense of everything else is economic monoculture.
Railroads add redundancy. When airplanes are grounded, when roads become dangerous, trains can keep running. When mudslides blocked a critical commuting route in California in January, Amtrak and other passenger rail carriers scheduled more and longer trains; the alternative was a 275-mile detour by road. We are going to need that kind of resilience, and will need it badly.
There’s another aspect to consider as well: demographics. By the year 2030, Census projections are that 1 in 5 people will be at retirement age in the US. By 2035 there will be more people age 65 and older than there will be children in America. That aging population is going to need alternatives to driving. The portion of the population interested in trails is going to be shrinking in the years ahead.
Car ownership isn’t the given it used to be either. Given alternatives to driving – like rail, transit, etc. – people are more likely to forgo car ownership these days. When they travel, they may rent or use a service like Uber or Lyft when they reach their destination. (As when people travel by air, for example.) Renting at the destination also makes the case for electric vehicles. If they’re going to be used for local driving, range isn’t as big an issue.
Rails are also a tool for reviving towns. Towns can focus more effectively on visitors when they arrive at a specific location. A rail station is a de facto visitor center and anchor point for shops, restaurants, and services to cluster around, instead of them spreading out along roadways. It helps hold towns together and stimulates walkable development. It means parking doesn’t have to be a primary concern. It means a service like a bus route finds more ridership in a concentrated area. It means less traffic on the roads for local people – including those who want to get around on bicycles.
This doesn’t mean people are going to give up personal vehicles any time soon. Too much of what we’ve spent the 20th century building has been based on the assumption that everyone has a car. Highway mania has taken us as far as it can go, and like an addiction it distorts everything. Restoring rail is about providing more and better choices.
This is not about giving up trails either. Framing it as an either/or choice is a false choice. It’s like saying you can only have peanut butter or jelly on your sandwich – but not both. There are many ways rails and trails complement each other above and beyond their individual strengths.
The primary driver of the rail trail movement is as a cheap way to put in a trail – cheap only IF you place no value on rails. It’s easy to sell to people who have never seen a personal need for trains, and have no idea what trains could do for their community. It’s also an easy sell to people who just want trains gone. The anti-development and anti-tax crowds don’t like the idea of investing in rail, either.
In the cases here, we’re talking about a historic legacy as well as a transportation asset. That’s something that can’t be replaced or duplicated. If the point is to make the local economy more competitive, build on something no one else can offer.
Reality is recognizing trails and rails together are better for tourism than either alone – and rails can do more than just haul tourists around. The necessity is recognizing that the 21st Century is not going to be like the 20th. The original purpose of the rails to trails movement was to save railroad corridors for the time when we needed railroads again. That time is here and now. We need railroads to cope with what’s coming at us. The sooner we face up to that, the better.
Larry Roth recently retired after 40 years in the NYS Department of Health, having worked in clinical and research labs. He has a lifelong interest in historic preservation and railroads. He is currently a volunteer at the U&D Railway Revitalization Corporation in Phoenicia, NY.
Photos from above: Route 28A in Ulster County; ASR between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake, 2016; Rail bike on ASR; ASR anniversary at Thendara, 2017; Rail Bike; and Seniors boarding the ASR in Utica.