Offer reignites debate over future of 30-mile rail line
By Tim Rowland
The Open Space Institute has made a $1.5 million offer for the abandoned Tahawus Line of the Saranac North Creek Railway under a railbanking plan that would permit its use as a recreational trail, while not entirely ruling out future commercial service should a viable freight carrier present itself.
The offer was not accepted by a bankruptcy court trustee who controls SNCR’s assets, but the ultimate fate of the 30-mile line will rest with the federal Surface Transportation Board. The entry of OSI, whose plan would allow for recreational use while protect the rail infrastructure for at least three years, fills a missing piece for the state, which has argued that the spur should be abandoned, but did not itself have immediate plans to buy it.
OSI has been actively protecting lands in the Tahawus area, and has invested considerable funds improving access for hikers and paddlers.
Environmental groups and the Department of Environmental Conservation are hoping to convert the Tahawus line into a rail trail, while the bankruptcy trustee, Essex County and the Town of Newcomb are holding out hope a freight carrier can be enticed to once again run the rails, spurring economic activity.
Rail-trail advocates, however, believe it’s tourism that holds the best economic potential, while maintaining a more natural environment. The railroad runs through long stretches of the forest preserve.
“Securing the line would create a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to develop a world-class rail trail and a year-round recreational destination,” Eileen Larrabee, senior vice president for OSI communications said in an email. “Still, whether OSI manages the right-of-way for commercial or for recreational purposes it is important for it to be controlled by a conservation-minded operator to ensure the line does not become a parking lot for dilapidated rail cars.”
The line had drawn comparatively little attention until 2017, when a parent company of SNCR parked dozens of oil tankers in what amounted to the middle of the wilderness. The tankers were removed, but not before the 30 mile line between North Creek and the old mining community of Tahawus became a rallying point for conservationists.
Newcomb Supervisor Robin DeLoria said the tankers contained only canola oil and were never an environmental threat, but that the negative publicity frightened off a couple of carriers that had expressed interest in purchasing the line.
At Tahawus, where the railroad ends, an 80 million ton pile of mining waste and stone remains that Mitchell Stone Products is processing and shipping out by truck for road bases, landscaping and other uses. DeLoria said opening the line to freight service would remove this eyesore from the wilderness more quickly and in a more environmentally friendly way than removing it by truck.
In an STB filing, the Town of Newcomb also said the waste might have considerably more value depending on the presence of rare earth elements used in dozens of technologies, from military applications to electric car batteries. Currently, sources of these elements are largely held by China, but geologists have noted their presence in Adirondack mine tailings.
In a joint letter, the Town of Newcomb and Essex County wrote, “These rare earth elements remain of strategic importance to the United States Defense Department and further study of the quantity of these materials justifies the STB’s denial of the adverse abandonment. Today, the search for these elements is considered the gold rush of the 21st century.”
But in court filings last week, the DEC said freight advocates have failed to find a carrier that believes hauling material from the mines can be profitable. The only other bid for the line has come from bike-rail company Revolution Rail, which offered $700,000. If no carrier is found, the trustee could auction off the railroad, using this $700,000 figure as a floor.
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The DEC meanwhile has asked the Surface Transportation Board to declare the line abandoned, contending that a rail trail “has the potential to serve as a significant economic driver in what is already a tourism-dependent region,” according to STB filings.
Pointing to the developing rail trail between Lake Placid and Tupper Lake — which is expected to attract an annual 245,000 visitors and generate $20 million in spending, filings say the “DEC believes that the (Tahawus) line, once railbanked, has the potential to provide an ecologically responsible means for public access to the beautiful High Peaks region of the Adirondack Park while generating significant revenue for North Creek and other nearby communities.”
The railroad was built during World War II when the need for titanium mined at Tahawus was critical. The mines closed in 1982, and freight was last hauled from Tahawus in 1989, according to the DEC. The line was sold to SNCR in 2011, and no freight carrier has been able to make a commercial success of it since. SNCR’s parent company, the San Luis & Rio Grande, sought bankruptcy protection in 2019, and SNCR, which is a separate legal entity, filed for bankruptcy in 2020.
“While bankruptcy procedures are always complicated, those involving rail lines are even more so, we look forward to working with local communities, state agencies and other stakeholders to optimize the rail line for access and use,” Larrabee said. “As this process proceeds, we are in steady conversations with representatives of both the state and local governments to keep them informed of this unique opportunity to transform the recreational economy of this southern Adirondack region.”
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Larry Roth says
The Adirondacks has been putting all of its economic eggs in the tourism basket for decades. While there are good points to supporting tourism, few consider its drawbacks.
Tourism is highly vulnerable to economic downturns – as a leisure activity it gets cut when money is tight and people rein in spending. Communities that depend on tourism to the exclusion of other economic activities lack resilience.
Tourism creates jobs that tend to be seasonal, low paying, and lacking in benefits. There’s not a lot of upward mobility. Adirondack towns are losing young people who have to move away to find jobs they can use to build a career with a future and support a family.
Tourism has a significant carbon footprint – because it requires visitors to travel to destinations. No one thinks of any use of rail corridors to support travel for tourists, even though the aim of the OSI and DEC is to increase visitors to the region. (Both the line to Tahawus and the line to Lake Placid have direct connections to Amtrak service.)
It takes three to four times as much energy to move the same tonnage using rubber wheels on pavement as it does with steel wheels on steel rails. That’s true whether you are talking fossil fuels or carbon-free renewables. And, no trail is ever going to take any trucks off highways. If we subsidized rail the way we unthinkingly subsidize highways, this country would look a lot different and would be making real progress on climate change.
DEC claims the rail trail in the Lake Placid area is going to generate $20 million in tourism spending a year. What DEC does not calculate is how much additional revenue would be generated if there was a working rail corridor running year round with a trail built along side it. (And the $20 million guesstimate is just that – a guess from trail advocates.)
DEC also fails to account for the climate impact of committing visitors to travel by personal vehicles. DEC fails to account for opportunity costs, such as being able to reduce truck traffic thorough the region, reduce the need for parking, reduce traffic congestion, and so on. DEC also excludes the diversified economic activity full time rail service would support.
Excuses that wetlands and wilderness would preclude trails alongside rails ignore how quickly DEC started draining ponds and wetlands once they were able to start ripping up the rails. DEC is not noted for reticence in building snowmobile trails everywhere either.
DEC’s total lack of appreciation for how rail lines could reduce the region’s carbon footprint significantly if used to their full potential is inexcusable. (The only concerns at the final hearing before the APA approved ripping out the tracks to Lake Placid was how much snowmobile emissions might increase!)
A third of all greenhouse gas emissions in the US come from transportation. We could make massive cuts in that in a relatively short time IF we made the effort to make full use of the rail lines we still have – and it would be an ever bigger help if we stopped tearing them out everywhere. It wouldn’t just cut emissions – it would also create good jobs.
This could be part of a larger strategy to not just get carbon out of transportation, but to connect the entire country to currently untapped renewable energy. If we made use of rail corridors as transmission corridors for clean power, we could have a national smart grid that would supply all the clean power we need.
But it’s not going to happen as long as we take the narrow, immediate view and ignore the bigger picture.
Excellent points. The desire and propensity to rip out rail lines is seriously misguided. It is a fanciful notion that the Lake Placid to Tupper Lake will generate an additional quarter million visitors and $20M of new spending that will benefit underemployed year round residents of the Adirondacks. The more likely case is recreational activities simply move from one location to another.
And how can moving the 80 million tons of mining waste by truck be a better idea that moving it by the trainload? A semi can carry about 22.5 tons, while a single rail car carries over 100 tons. Plus truckloads of stone will damage the roads; one tractor trailer does the damage of 10,000 cars. How many tens of thousands of truck round trips would be unnecessary if the railroad was used instead? It is an enormous carbon footprint.
Lastly, it seems inevitable that turning this into a “rail trail” is just another high speed snowmobile trail. How many more miles of snowmobile trails are necessary?
LeRoy Hogan says
Rail trails do not directly generate revenue for their own maintenance.
Scott Thompson says
Having worked for tourist rail , transportation, and tourism in the Adirondacks and out, a problem with trains in low density transportation is that they have to run a schedule to be useful and that means run for 300 or 1 passenger. That means 200+ tons of train has to move. At todays costs that requires 100+ people to break even and more to exceed the cost and efficiency of private transportation. Not taking into account “on call” transportation to get riders to their final destination. This is THE most inefficient transportation as it runs empty to the train and returns empty to its home point after delivery.
Larry Roth says
Given that you are a motel owner whose business plan depends on getting the railroad removed, your opinion needs to be taken with a huge grain of salt.
You ignore the ridership the current tourist operation has built and deny what regular full service would attract.
You also ignore the massive subsidies needed to support ‘on demand’ highway usage and car-dependent economic activity. (Rising gas prices affecting your business?)
Aside from climate considerations which you ignore, you also fail to appreciate that the region would benefit far more from rail with trail than either alone. It’s not an either/or choice.
I’ve seen how trail-only works in practice. It excludes a whole range of people from enjoying rail corridors: families with small children; seniors with walkers and wheel chairs, people who are not up to the physical demands of cycling or hiking for miles, people who do not want to deal with inclement weather, people who don’t have thousands to spend on fancy bicycles or snowmobiles, people with a broad cultural background.
They will ride a train – and do.
And, as you completely ignore, the potential for the region with year-round rail freight service again would make the regional economy stronger.
It’s clear that DEC and too many people view rail corridors as snowmobile superhighways instead of as the vital transportation infrastructure we need. There’s money to be made from playtime, but there are real needs to be met above and beyond limited self-interest.
Richard Carlson says
First off – it’s Saratoga North Creek Railroad, not Saranac. The Tahawus mine tailings are somewhat removed from the end of the rail line. Significant infrastructure would need to be built to make it happen. Maybe Barton’s could get rid of some of their mine tailings also.
I am all for removing the mine tailings via rail, but if it isn’t accomplished (or even started) in 5 years, tear up the rails. Don’t continue to use mine tailing removal as a reason to keep the rails if it is never going to happen. There are good economic and logistical reasons why it hasn’t been done already. Basically, the same reasons the mine was shut down.
Perhaps a serious look at returning much of the tailing material back into the mine excavation then environmentally capping the mine would be a better long-term solution. The proposed bond act could help with funding.
Jacob F. Kratz says
Highest and best use of lands with railroad easements shall always be railroads, not trails. An electric/sol/hybrid passenger, tourist or even freight line could run on those tracks. Removing those tracks only serves to promote more suburban sprawl and guarantee our currentband future dependence on motor vehicles and tractor trailers. The best long term view is to do nothing and let the tracks sit until the time comes wherein the line can be reactivated or use it as a heritage railroad (Google New Hope Heritage Railroad or railroad in Jim Thorpe, Pa) that is community based. I find it hard to believe the trail will generate the projected revenue they indicated and find the figure suspect given we see the opposite in Pennsylvania. If anything, there is lack of revenue to maintain our trails in PA, so I imagine NY is in the same boat. I suspect they threw out that figure to justify the rail to trail proposal and the railroad easement should NEVER be allowed to terminate after 3 years but it should always remain in perpetuity even if they do convert to a trail, as it’s in our national interest to conserve all railways for our future generations to use should the need ever redevelop. Our future depends on us. We cannot allow entities with deep pockets tell us what to do or railroad us into ensuring further continuance of suburban sprawl and dependence on cars and tractor trailers, and serving to increase property values near the trails by pushing trails mostly the affluent only have the time to use and not the rest of us who have to work the 9 to 5 grind let alone the underserved population who need the railroad now, more than ever given higher fuel and vehicle costs. Hello?
Tiffani Barton says
U.S. government’s strategy to ensure secure and reliable supplies of critical minerals under Executive Order 13817 and follows a series of rare earth element actions the Department of Defense has taken in recent years to ensure supply and strengthen defense supply chains. Specific actions include stockpiling, implementing Defense Federal Acquisition Regulations Supplement (DFARS) rules to transition defense supply chains to non-Chinese sources of rare earth element magnets, launching engineering studies with the Industrial Base Analysis and Sustainment program focused on re-establishing domestic heavy rare earth element processing, partnering with industry to re-establish domestic neodymium-iron-boron magnet production, and leveraging Small Business Innovation and Research and Rapid Innovation Funds to accelerate the development of new rare earth element processing technologies. The award to Lynas follows three previous DPA Title III awards to rare earth element producers announced in November of 2020.
Tiffani Barton says