The question nags at me as I watch the debate by Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates to scrap the railroad. I am troubled by a divisive debate and controversy. I know that divisiveness rarely leads to a desirable outcome for those involved.
Again this year, my family and I volunteered for the railroad's Ironman run aid station, something we've done for the last six years. It is a massive undertaking. The contrasts were stark: Here we were, spending all day and half the night supporting athletes, while ARTA was selling its single-minded plan uptown. I wonder if those who signed their petition realized they were endorsing scrapping an operating railroad instead of an abandoned one? I bet, if given the choice, they would be most enthusiastic about having both rail and trail.
Mid-race, I visited ARTA and ended in conversation with Mr. Keet. I was pleased to learn ARTA now supports keeping the railroad - the rail with trail between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake. But my enthusiasm was dampened by his unwavering desire to rip up tracks south of Saranac Lake to Lake Clear, Tupper Lake and then Thendara. From a railroad operations standpoint, it is not practical to remove segments and run a functional, isolated railroad. There is no shop here, and then you could never exchange equipment without trucking it in or out, which is cost-prohibitive.
I expressed my interest for us to work together, to build a trail where it's practical and in segments. We could give the trail users a ride back up the hill to Lake Placid, I pointed out, and this is the town where the majority of the tourists are. When I asked about the already abandoned railroad north of Lake Clear, I was surprised that Mr. Keet explained they could not focus on building that out because there were "not enough people there." I suggested that Charlie's Inn would be a big winner, with both the railroad and trail at their property, but Mr. Keet insisted this is simply not possible. It made me wonder then, who would be walking the ripped-up railroad in Lake Clear?
And then their numbers. Does anyone really believe there will be hundreds of thousands of people walking the trail in the wilderness between Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake? I'm sorry, it just seems so doubtful. First, the other trails they cite are not as rural as the Adirondacks and are long abandoned railroad-wise. Second, it's mud season through April. May and June belong to the black flies. July, the deer flies arrive. Snow and raw temperatures return mid October. So maybe three months of agreeable weather. Who will do the 34-to-80-mile trip length except the very most fit? Certainly not the masses of tourists, youth, elderly or infirm, who will then be all but excluded from the beautiful Adirondack interior? I pressed my case for segments with Mr. Keet; I asked him, Lee, couldn't ARTA build some segments first along the existing railroad and see what happens? Isn't that big enough for ARTA to chew on for a while? "No" was his firm reply.
Why am I so passionate for rail? Because it is an awesome, environmentally friendly transportation mode built of sweat and toil, and it has huge value for all the communities along the way. It is living history. It is much more than nostalgia and recreation - which the Adirondacks are already rich in. There are lots of trails to hike but only one railroad.
I see expanded passenger service and future rail freight. Trash, logs and pellets out, salt, fuel and propane in - incidentally, the Adirondacks uses a lot of heating fuel. Want to reduce your fuel bill by 20 to 30 cents a gallon? It is possible and a big deal when multiplied by all the dwellings. Yes, it will take time to develop this business, but with the rail in place it can be done gradually. But without tracks, it will never happen.
In my vision, the railroad has regional headquarters in Tupper Lake with a shop as well, possibly in the OWD complex. They can take on rail car repair work and create full-time, skilled jobs for mechanics, welders, electricians, etc. This staff can better support expanded railroad maintenance and operations, including a steam engine in Tupper Lake and new Lake Placid-Tupper Lake cruise and dinner trains, much like the Alaska Railroad does. We have the tourists to support both rails and trails, and exquisite scenery to go with it. The trains and trails both would be a hit. And we can pick up and drop off hikers and paddlers anywhere along the way.
With 12 years of railroad experience in the Adirondacks, I know the property like my best friend. I know both construction and railroading and, for this line, exactly by the milepost what is needed for repairs. I am sincere in my belief that we can both preserve rail service and create some fun trails.
I began this wondering why it can't be a cooperative venture. I think it is right. There is nothing innovative in scrapping a railroad, but there is in creating a railroad serving the region with trails. Let the railroad "bridge" the trail segments. Make trails in Tupper Lake, Lake Clear and Saranac Lake to Lake Placid. See what happens next. In doing so, new trails are created, and the railroad is enhanced, too. I predict it will be a unique hit, and each mode will feed the other. Everyone will win, and when that happens, political leaders will line up to support what works for all constituents. That is reality. Everyone backs a winner, and a regionally focused railroad with trails is just that.
This is my vision; I am very passionate about the railroad serving the region with adjacent trails. I will work with any and all to use my skills and knowledge of the rail corridor to see it become a reality.
Pete Snyder is a former operations manager of the Adirondack Scenic Railroad and now lives in Irasburg, Vt.