I’ve ridden on the rail corridor between Saratoga Springs and North Creek several times over the years, including the last run to North Creek with a dome car. The scenery is beautiful, especially from the high bridge at Hadley. The views along the river are splendid. Those who have never done it by train will never know what they’re missing. I wish I could have ridden it to Tahawus.
Some argue the railroad must go because it can’t pay for itself. The reason for that is that we spent the 20th century building highways at taxpayer expense; we subsidize everything that competes with rail while still expecting it to make money.
There are good points for rail trails — exercise, enjoying nature, tourism, and so on — but every mile of track removed is a commitment to more traffic on highways, and fewer alternatives to move people and goods around. A trail will not serve the industrial district in Corinth for example, and that’s not the only business potential on the line.
Instead of leveraging the historic investment and infrastructure in towns that grew up around the railroad, highways have contributed to sprawl: housing developments scattered around, big box stores on the edges, needing acres of parking and public services.
You can drive past North Creek on Route 28 and hardly know it’s there. The rail line brings you right into town to the historic station and the business district around it. It’s the same for the other stops on the line. The railroad connects directly with Amtrak at Saratoga. Why give that up?
The Achilles heel of tourism is its carbon footprint. You can’t have tourists without travel — and limiting ourselves to highways means higher emissions. According to the Sierra Club, 36% of greenhouse gas emissions in New York come from transportation. Rail is far more energy-efficient than rubber wheels on pavement. Every rail line removed is an opportunity lost to address climate change and air quality.
Simply running trains on biodiesel would make them effectively carbon neutral. The Dutch have a national electrified rail system; they’ve invested in enough wind power to cover 100% of the electricity needed to run it. Alstom has developed hydrogen fuel cell train sets with zero carbon emissions.
While electric cars, buses, trucks, etc. would also cut emissions, Solutionary Rail estimates that it can take up to three times as much energy to move a load by road as it would by rail. That means we’d need that much more renewable energy for highway transport over rail. It will also take longer for everyone to make the switch to electric vehicles.
The rest of the world is investing in rail. Only America thinks ripping up rail lines is progress. It’s not an either/or choice. We can do more than one thing at a time — and we must at the rate climate change is ramping up.
The storm that hit New York on Halloween night 2019 led to emergency declarations in 11 counties. Millions of dollars of damage was done to highways alone. It’s going to take months, possibly years to repair them. In contrast, the CSX main line had several washouts from the storm near Utica but was back in service late the next day. We are going to need that kind of resiliency.
If we are serious about protecting the Adirondacks (and the planet), giving up a transportation choice that could reduce our carbon footprint is not the way to go. Instead of spending taxpayer money on a nonessential trail, we should invest in restoring rail passenger and freight capacity. New England states are investing in tourist, commuter, passenger and freight rail while also doing transit-oriented development. That is the future we need in New York.
This essay is by Larry Roth, a Ravena resident who works with the nonprofit Solutionary Rail to address climate change by promoting a national rail system. It is a companion piece to “Viewpoint: Convert Hudson River Rails to Multi-Use Trail” by Peter Bauer, Executive Director of Protect the Adirondacks. Peter Bauer’s essay will run on early next week. These essays first appeared in the Adirondack Explorer.
Photo of Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates riding an area near Lake Colby in 2013 by Nancie Battaglia.