SARANAC LAKE - It will be a little while longer before the whistle of the Adirondack Scenic Railroad's train is heard in the Tri-Lakes this season.
Typically, the Saranac Lake-Lake Placid tourist trains operated by the Utica-based Adirondack Railway Preservation Society start the season on weekends from late May through June, but that didn't happen this year. Railroad officials said the train won't run until early July due to a combination of track repairs and poor early season ridership over the last few years.
"We expect to be moving equipment probably next week because we plan on starting around the first of July," said ARPS board member Allen Dunham, who lives in Saranac Lake. "We did that this year because we did not have the ridership last year for early June."
Saranac Lake’s Union Depot train station, seen here Friday, has been quiet this month as the Adirondack Scenic Railroad pushed back the start of the season for its Lake Placid-Saranac Lake tourist trains to early July.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Knight)
"June is slow for us. It always is up there," added ARPS President Bill Branson. "It's very busy down here (at the railroad's southern end). Our trains are full. But up there it's quieter, so we just decided to hold off this season."
Both Dunham and Branson also said a 6-mile section of track near Carter Station needed to be upgraded before the train's engines and other equipment could be brought north for the season. That work has been completed, Dunham said.
When the train arrives in Lake Placid, Branson said two engines will likely be brought up, "so if we have sabotage again, we can still run."
Last fall, one of the group's engines was damaged while it was parked on the tracks at the Lake Placid depot. When volunteers tried to start it on Oct. 9, they discovered wires inside its electrical cabinet had been pulled out, cut and placed back in the cabinet. Railroad officials called it sabotage and put up a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the person or persons who damaged the engine, which was fixed and put back into service before the end of the season.
Lake Placid village police investigated but have yet to make an arrest, calling it an incident of criminal mischief.
"We followed many leads, but ultimately the investigation remains open," Sgt. Chuck Dobson said Thursday.
Apart from the second engine, another notable change to the Lake Placid-Saranac Lake run this season will be the absence of a dining car.
"We're not going to be bringing up the cafe car this year because we want to help the merchants downtown, especially if they sell coffee or food, to give them some more benefit," Dunham said.
"We have much greater use for it down here," Branson said. "We can sell that car all day long, whereas it gets much lighter use up there."
Dunham said the railroad is working on other ways to bring more train passengers to downtown Saranac Lake businesses. He said over a dozen merchants have agreed to provide 10 percent discounts to passengers who visit their shops during the train's layover in Saranac Lake.
Among other changes this year, Dunham said the railroad has a new office in Utica, and a new telephone system. Calls to the Lake Placid and Saranac Lake train stations are now transferred directly to Utica.
"We've made a number of improvements to better handle customer inquiries and transactions," Dunham said.
Despite the lack of trains running prior to July, Branson said he believes the schedule for the summer and fall will be roughly the same as in years past. The railroad's online schedule for the Lake Placid-Saranac Lake route shows it operating five days a week, Wednesday through Sunday, in July and August, on weekends in early September, and back to five days a week from mid September through Columbus Day.
"The fall is good," Branson said. "There would be no reason to cut that short."
The scenic railroad's operations have been the center of a long-simmering debate about the best use of the 120-mile state-owned railroad bed from Remsen to Lake Placid. Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates wants to remove the tracks and convert the bed to a multi-use trail corridor for biking, hiking and snowmobiling. Supporters of the railroad want the state to restore the tracks and build a recreational trail next to them, where feasible, and re-route it through surrounding forest in areas where the corridor is too narrow.
The state departments of Transportation and Environmental Conservation held a series of public meetings last fall on whether or not to reopen and review the rail corridor's 1996 management plan. State officials said a decision would come by the end of the year, but that didn't happen.
"No information on an announcement yet," DOT spokesman Beau Duffy wrote in an email Tuesday.
Meanwhile, advocates on both sides of the debate are waiting for an answer.
Branson said he's been to a number of meetings with state officials in Albany, but he doesn't have any more insight as to what they may do.
"We've just been told it's on hold," Dunham said.
"We have definitely not gotten any official word beyond what you have heard," ARTA board member Tony Goodwin said Friday. "We've had meetings with DOT and DEC, but still nothing has come out. All I can say is that I sympathize with DOT in particular that whatever decision they make, they know that the nice quiet status quo they currently enjoy is going to end."