One of the arguments for perpetuating the tourist train that operates between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake is that the train provides an important recreational benefit to people "with mobility challenges," as Sharon O'Brien noted in her commentary of Nov. 22. Sharon believes we should keep the train going to accommodate handicapped persons along with "grandparents traveling with young children."
But there's a much easier and less costly way to go, and it's been staring us in the face since regular train service ended here in 1965. This option entails removing the tracks and turning the rail bed into an Adirondack bikeway and multi-use recreation trail, a major tourist attraction that could accommodate just about everyone who enjoys being outdoors in a peaceful, scenic setting. The beneficiaries would include people in wheelchairs, families with small children, and older folks whose mountain climbing days are behind them.
Sharon tells us that her organization, the Adirondack North Country Association, not only wants to keep the tourist train running but also supports construction of a separate trail that parallels the railroad tracks. "As currently planned and funded," she writes, "the recreational path will connect Saranac Lake and Lake Placid." That's not quite accurate. Current funding amounts to about $3 million in government grants which, at best, would cover the cost of building a parallel trail about halfway between the two villages, from Placid to Ray Brook. Millions more in taxpayer funding would be needed to continue the trail to Saranac Lake.
Women set out on the Heritage Rail Trail in Pennsylvania.
(Photo — Carl Knoch, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy)
And beyond that, forget it. Constructing a separate trail alongside the tracks over the next 25 miles to Tupper Lake, with all the lakes, ponds and wetlands, the causeways and culverts, is both a physical and financial impossibility.
The inescapable fact is this: After a trial period of eleven years, the tourist train has failed to justify its government-supported existence. It has not stimulated our tourist economy, as promised, and it has made no significant contribution to the economic-well being of the region. Moreover, its continued presence on the final nine miles of the old New York Central railroad bed is blocking a far more desirable use of the entire corridor between Thendara and Lake Placid.
"ANCA is committed to improving recreational access for those who want to spend time in nature but have physical challenges that limit their ability to get into the outdoors," Sharon writes. That sounds like a worthy goal, but just think of what's possible when the tracks are removed and the rail bed is smoothly surfaced with crushed and compacted limestone. Unlike the tourist train, use of the Great Adirondack Recreation Trail would be free of charge. It would be ready-made for people in electric-powered wheelchairs, or for those in self-propelled wheelchairs who prefer more exercise. Another option is pedal-driven rickshaws for handicapped passengers. Disabled athletes could make good use of the trail as a safe place to train.
"I have a brother-in-law who is a paraplegic and has been in a wheelchair for over 25 years," a member of Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates told me. "We have had several discussions about the recreation trail and there is nothing more he would like than a flat, smooth and quiet path to take a roll on. When he was younger, he had the arm strength to push himself around the hills of Tupper Lake, but it was never easy negotiating the traffic and rough terrain. He also has an arm-powered bike that he would love to be able to ride on this trail because it is also more enjoyable on a flat surface. It's all about independence with him. He loves doing things on his own and does not like to have to be pushed or pulled anywhere by anyone."
So here's where things stand today, on the cusp of a historic break-through. With the tracks removed between Lake Placid and Old Forge, proceeds from the sale of the rails could go toward surfacing the bed and making it a world-class recreational trail for the disabled, along with bikers, joggers, strollers, and bird watchers of every age and ability-plus increased numbers of happy, money-spending snowmobilers in the winter.
Attempts to revive railroad service through the Adirondacks have been on and off for decades. The first attempt came in the late 70s, when a handful of train buffs raised enough state money to revive passenger service between Utica and Lake Placid. This revival lasted only a short time before the enterprise went belly up. The most recent failure has been the gallant but doomed effort to operate a viable tourist train between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake.
Isn't it finally time to capitalize on this extraordinary asset by converting an obsolete railway into a much-needed trail? It's called "adaptive reuse" and "sustainable development," and it seems like such a no-brainer. More than 1,200 supporters of ARTA - and growing - apparently think so.
Beamish is a resident of Saranac Lake and a founding members of Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates. For information, visit www.theARTA.org.