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Why we don’t need the railroad restored, even if gas goes to $8/gallon

February 20, 2012
By Lee Keet , Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates

Those of us who would like to see the unused rail bed from Old Forge north and east used as a recreational trail frequently hear the objection that we will need the railroad if fuel goes to $8 a gallon. But we won't.

Autos already have similar efficiency to trains per passenger mile. (See "Rail vs. Auto Energy Efficiency" by David S. Lawyer, July 2004, and "Does Rail Transit Save Energy or Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions?" by Randal O'Toole, February 2004.) But trains are not getting more energy efficient at the same rate as cars, trucks or buses are. So as energy prices go up, due to the huge inherent energy needed just to get such a massive machine rolling, trains actually lose ground to other rolling vehicles. David Lawyer states, "If one takes into account the weight of the train per passenger, and then examines the rolling resistance per passenger, the advantage of rail over the auto drastically drops. For a very heavy passenger train, it will even favor the auto." And that was seven years ago, not in 2025.

So what happens if, in more than a dozen years, gas prices double? Answer: nothing. Assuming auto manufacturers adhere to the government Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, fuel efficiency must also double, and the cost per mile driven will remain unchanged. Not so for trains, whose fuel cost will double without having comparable efficiency offsets. And incidentally, the foregoing does not take into account the possibility that we will be using other, more efficient-energy forms to power our vehicles 10 or 15 years from now.

So what about the other arguments that are keeping us from having a recreational trail that will benefit our economy, communities and way of life? If economics will not drive us to trains, will efficiency of travel? Not likely. A bus going the 234 miles from New York to Utica takes six hours and costs $62. Amtrak runs that route twice a day taking four-and-a-half hours at a ticket cost of $84. Assuming the train were restored from Utica to Lake Placid and upgraded to Class III service, as promised by the Adirondack Railroad Preservation Society more than a dozen years ago, even with perfect connections it would take another four hours to get to Lake Placid, or a total of eight-and-a-half hours from New York City. The Amtrak train from New York to Westport costs $63, in contrast, and takes just under six hours. The shuttle to Lake Placid adds another hour, for a total of seven hours or less. No matter how you do the math, if coming from New York City, the Hudson Valley or Albany, as most visitors do, you would always chose the New York-Montreal train if going to Lake Placid or Saranac Lake, even if the rail service from Utica were put back on line.

What about autos? Car specialist says it costs 15 cents per mile in variable cost (fuel and maintenance) to drive a fuel-efficient car. From New York City to Lake Placid, 288 miles, would therefore cost $43 out of pocket, not including the sunk costs of ownership (depreciation, insurance, etc.). The travel time is five hours. Most people would look at five hours by car versus seven on a train through Westport or eight-and-a-half hours through Utica (if service were restored) - ending up at a train depot with a farther journey by taxi or car to get home - would take to the road, and at half the cost. This is why the train failed for passengers 40 years ago, and nothing has changed since to make the train more attractive.

But what if, the Utica-to-Lake Placid train advocates say, high-speed rail service was initiated from New York to Chicago going through Utica? Well, suppose that cut the run time from New York in half (and increased the average speed to over 100 mph). Now, with perfect connections, the western route would equal the eastern route in time, but not in cost, and the auto would still beat both. Consider, however, that if the federal money were spent on the New York-to-Montreal run and THAT run was the beneficiary of halved time, travel to Westport would take three hours and you could get to Lake Placid in just four hours. What is wrong with this picture? Answer: nothing.

And then the final argument: greenhouse gasses. Surely, trains are better. Sorry, not true. To quote Mr. O'Toole's article, "Construction of new rail lines, or reconstruction of existing ones, is very expensive in dollars, energy, and greenhouse gas emissions; yet the most successful lines have attracted only a tiny percentage of motorists out of their automobiles. Even the best rail transit lines provide only small energy and greenhouse benefits relative to the most efficient automobiles. And most rail transit lines in the United States actually consume more energy per passenger mile than the average passenger car."

Bottom line, there are no arguments for keeping 81 miles of potential recreation trail unused in the mistaken belief that this will eventually be better for economic, environmental or future travel reasons. We could have a world-class recreation trail with all that this would bring to our economies, and if we put our efforts into improving the New York-Montreal rail line, we could have the best of both worlds.


Lee Keet lives in Saranac Lake and is a member of the Steering Committee of the Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates.



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