To date, much of the rail vs. trail debate has touted the potential benefits of the possible uses of the Adirondack Rail Corridor. The supposed benefits of a trail include increased local recreational opportunities both summer and winter plus economic benefits from those who will travel to the area to use the trail with bicyclists and snowmobilers to be the greatest users.
Rail supporters question whether those benefits are greater than the benefits of a fully restored railroad that would supposedly bring greater economic benefits by transporting more visitors to the area.
Mostly left out of the debate is any discussion of just who and in what numbers would actually ride a restored railroad running 140 miles from Utica to Lake Placid.
The Adirondack Scenic Railroad (ASR) may have managed to survive so far offering short scenic rides, but 140 miles of railroad is true “transportation,” not just “scenery.” Individuals seeking actual transportation are most likely traveling to a destination where those travelers can then engage in another chosen activity. The ride in the train/plane/car is merely a means to the end and not the entire reason for the trip. When someone flies from the East Coast to Aspen, Colorado in February, they don’t fly for the 35,000-foot high view of the Great Plains. No, they fly because that is the most efficient and economical way to get there to ski. A train ride from Utica to Lake Placid (plus any connecting train ride to Utica) will never be as convenient and economical as driving, flying, or (if coming from the major markets of Albany or NYC) taking the more direct train to Westport and riding a shuttle to Lake Placid.
A cursory look at both the geography and the population very quickly indicates that there is no way a railroad could survive hauling passengers between those two locations. Utica is a city of approximately 70,000 with perhaps another 30,000 in the greater metro area. Lake Placid is clearly a major tourist destination, but only has a population of about 5,000 if those living in surrounding North Elba are counted. The total population of the towns in between is only about 10,000.
Rail supporters have countered this lack of immediate population with the fact that Utica is served by four daily Amtrak trains in each direction. Rail supporters thus say that riders, to/from Lake Placid could theoretically take the train to Utica from New York City, Albany, Syracuse, Buffalo, or other locations in between. The ASR’s business plan for expanded rail operations repeatedly touts the possibility of “cross-platform transfers” as a way of insuring a steady flow of passengers. Unfortunately, the operating schedule as proposed in the business plan does not include any ASR train that actually connects “across the platform” with an Amtrak train from New York and Albany. Specifically, as proposed the only daily ASR train leaves Utica at 8:40 am, but the first Amtrak train from that direction doesn’t arrive in Utica for another three hours. Thus, travel by train from New York or Albany would require an overnight stay. Assuming one was willing to board a train at 4:30 am in Buffalo, a wait of 40 minutes would actually allow a cross-platform transfer. But how many would be willing to do that?
An additional major problem with train travel to Lake Placid is the amount of time required – in part because of the additional 100 miles that must be covered when going via Utica. The current plan for track rehabilitation only envisions restoring the railroad to Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) Class II track. The speed limit for passenger trains on Class II track is only 30 mph. If a train could maintain that speed from start to finish, it would still be 4 hours, 40 minutes for the 140 miles from Utica to Lake Placid. But the grades out of Utica and the six likely station stops (Thendara, Big Moose, Beaver River, Tupper Lake, Lake Clear, and Saranac Lake) could easily stretch the trip to nearly six hours. Add to that the 4-1/2 hours needed to get from New York City to Utica, and it’s a long day of travel just to get there. The proposed schedule in the ASR’s business plan confirms the six hours to Lake Placid (8:40 am to 2:40 pm) with a change of trains required in Tupper Lake.
The prospects for a profitable, and therefore sustainable, train to Lake Placid are further diminished by the recent experience of the Saratoga and North Creek Railroad (SNCRR). With great high hopes, in 2011 the SNCRR inaugurated service on a two hour ride between Saratoga and North Creek. That service included a mid-day, round-trip tourist run plus two more runs to directly connect with both the northbound and the south bound runs of Amtrak’s Ethan Allen Express. Total travel time northbound from New York City to North Creek was 7-1/2 hours. Starting in 2012, the SNCRR added a third train that connected with both runs of Amtrak’s Adirondack running between New York City, Albany, and Montreal.
The SNCRR trains that connected with Amtrak never had many riders, and by 2015 the schedule was down to the one scenic train from Saratoga to North Creek. The SNCRR also tried “snow trains” to serve Gore Mt. The package deal the railroad offered included a lift ticket and was attractively priced. Skiers could also leave home quickly because breakfast was available on the train. However, the two hour train ride plus the van shuttle meant that, after arriving bright and early at the Saratoga station at 7 am, one likely didn’t start actually skiing until closer to 10 am. By contrast, a skier leaving Saratoga by car at 7 am could likely catch “first tracks” at the mountain.
Service on the SNCRR continued to diminish until there was a last run this past April with the season’s final snow train. Along the way, the railroad tried to stay afloat financially with the highly controversial plan to store unused oil tankers.
This was opposed by the State, the surrounding town, and environmental groups, causing the SNCRR to end all service.
Now I will have to admit that it would be a scenic ride from Utica to Lake Placid. Should service actually be restored there, I am sure that the first few trains would be close to sold out with business continuing to be brisk for a few more. Unfortunately, once all those who want to experience a six hour scenic ride have experienced it, those riders will either move on to some of the other great scenic train rides in North America, or they will use a more convenient way to get to Lake Placid.
This pattern of initial surge and then a steep decline would be consistent with the long-awaited extension to Big Moose. The first long train in 2013 was sold out, requiring two engines to get it up the grades. Soon, however, average ridership was down to the 25-50 passenger range per weekly run. This year, service is limited to only ten runs during foliage season. Ten runs a year does not seem to justify the $1.2 million expenditure of government funds required to rehabilitate the track to Big Moose.
As mentioned above, up to this point the ASR has been selling “scenic rides” lasting a day or far less. An expansion to Lake Placid moves into the vastly different category of “transportation” where the destination and what one will do once at the destination is more important than the scenery along the way. Even if the ASR were to alter their schedule so that one could make a cross platform transfer in Utica, a trip to Lake Placid (or even Albany) would require full day of travel each way. One would thus have to take a full three-day weekend just to have one full day for activities in Lake Placid. I believe that most observers would agree that there would never be enough travelers ever choosing that option to sustain rail operations between Utica and Lake Placid.
Photo of Adirondack Railroad track north of Lake Clear Lodge by John Warren.