SARANAC LAKE - A crowd of people gathered Thursday night bubbled with optimism about the potential for the Adirondack Scenic Railroad corridor despite repeated challenges from people who want to get rid of the tracks.
"This kind of sounds like a church," Adirondack Rail Preservation Society President Bill Branson said while touting the benefits of the tracks in a speech.
"I believe," yelled Gail Brill, to applause and cheers from the audience.
Saranac Lake Community Development Director Jeremy Evans and his son look out the window on a Thursday evening ride on the Adirondack Scenic Railroad from Saranac Lake to Lake Placid. Evans was instrumental to an effort this summer to drive train riders into the village of Saranac Lake to shop and see sights.
(Enterprise photo — Jessica Collier)
Branson, ARPS Executive Officer Bethan Maher, Adirondack North Country Association head Kate Fish and Next Stop Tupper Lake's David Tomberlin all talked about the current benefits and potential for growth in the future Thursday evening at the Saranac Lake train station.
Branson said part of the point of the event was to make sure people know "We're worth having around."
ARPS pushed this year to get its riders into Saranac Lake more than in the past. It increased its layover time in Saranac Lake this summer, handed out a map of downtown Saranac Lake for train visitors and stationed volunteer ambassadors at the train depot to guide people through the village.
Brill was one of those ambassadors and called it the highlight of her summer during a speech Thursday. She introduced a video created for the event with several Saranac Lake merchants who said the railroad had a positive impact on their business this summer.
"I think the impact on the area has been substantial," Brill said.
The video included testimonials from downtown shop owners like Peter Wilson of Major Plowshares, Carla Sternberg of Two Horse Trading and Amy Johnstone of Eco Living. They said they got used to groups of people milling through the downtown area about 10 minutes after hearing the train whistle each day this summer.
"I think that the train has been an incredible asset to this village," Johnstone said in the video.
Tomberlin told the Enterprise the video will be available for all to see online soon.
Potential for tracks
Branson talked about the possibility of using the train to give access to the woods for people with disabilities, the elderly, young children and city people who don't necessarily feel comfortable trekking into the deep woods on their own.
He also noted that rehabilitating the tracks opens up the possibility of hauling freight, fuel and lumber, as well as moving people about the region. He called it the most efficient means of transpiration.
Al Dunham, a Saranac Lake member of the APRS board, said he sees the railroad as a way to bring local people together.
"When the train came through, Lake Placid, Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake were all joined together into one community," Dunham said.
ARPS on Thursday morning announced plans to partner with Iowa Pacific Holdings to offer Pullman overnight luxury train service between New York City and Lake Placid if the rail corridor from Utica to Lake Placid is rehabilitated.
"It's nice to be able to think about the future in a positive way," Branson told the crowd.
Fish talked about the potential for different types of cross-marketing campaigns with the railroad, including camping and fishing excursions by train, rail trips for sampling microbrewed beers like Lake Placid Pub and Brewery, and a "Wild Ride" that could bring Lake Placid tourists to Tupper Lake for the day to visit the Wild Center natural history museum.
State Sen. Betty Little, R-Queensbury, said Iowa Pacific's new ski train from Saratoga to North Creek was successful last winter.
"Looking at what can be done up here is really important," Little said.
As chairwoman of the Senate Tourism Committee, Little said her group often talks about the millions of tourists in New York City each year and how to get them to other points in the state. She noted that many of them come from Europe, where trains are a way of life, and increased train opportunities could bring more of them to the Adirondacks.
State Assemblywoman Janet Duprey, R-Peru, talked about her trip from Tupper Lake to Saranac Lake earlier Thursday on a high-rail car, saying it had the best views she's seen in her life.
"I can't imagine what the ridership will be" if that track is opened up, Duprey said. "I don't think you can count high enough."
Response to criticism
Branson said his group generally doesn't respond to much of the vocal criticism against the railroad, but he took a moment to address some of the biggest concerns of critics, most of them financial.
ARPS is finalizing its audits for last year now, and it appears the group ended up $5,400 in the black, he said. It also made its last $12,600 payment on a $461,000 loan last week.
"I look forward to the day, and it's coming soon, that we owe no one anything," Branson said.
Maher also addressed concerns about ridership, which has fluctuated over time. She said that overall, Adirondack Scenic Railroad ridership has increased by 8 percent this year, more than Amtrak's numbers have increased.
"Eight percent is a big increase for a little railroad like us," Maher said.
She said the increase is largely attributed to the bike-and-rail and canoe-and-rail trips the railroad offered this year on the southern portion of the railroad.
On the northern end of the railroad, which has run between Saranac Lake and Lake Placid since fall 2000, ridership is up 3 percent so far this year over last, despite being shut down for three days this summer due to a forest fire.
She said she knows that people with the Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates criticize the railroad's ridership numbers because they count each boarding as a rider, despite the fact that most people take round-trips, but she said that's what the Federal Railroad Administration guidelines dictate.
Branson also took issue with claims by ARTA that a trail in place of the tracks would bring more people to the region who will spend money.
"The notion that we'll have 2,000 more hikers here - that's just absurd," Branson said. He said his son is a bicycler who travels to race in events, but his son told him, "People like me, we're not going to spend any money anywhere."
Fish displayed a map during her presentation that showed several former rail corridors that she said could have potential for trails without getting rid of an operating railroad.
A little more than 200 people came to the meeting at the train depot, though not everyone came along as people piled onto the train for a free sunset ride to Lake Placid and back.
The train cars were decorated with white drapes, tiny string lights, old-fashioned lanterns and moss and bark centerpieces for the occasion. The decor was designed by Adirondack Club and Resort developer Susan Lawson and ACR assistant Angie Gullen, and carried out by a variety of volunteers.
People gazed out the windows, took photos and socialized on the ride as servers passed around light appetizers from Bima's Pizzeria and Deli in Tupper Lake and kept the wine and beer flowing.
Contact Jessica Collier at 518-891-2600 ext. 26 or firstname.lastname@example.org.