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D. P. Lubic

Amtrak sets records again, and finds that it's not only hauling more people, but they are getting younger:

D. P. Lubic

Good evening,

I wonder what your take on this is. . .

There is a huge battle going on between bicycle and snowmobile trail interests and two, possibly three tourist/heritage railroads in New York state.

The three railroads are the Catskill Mountain Railroad in the Catskills running in Ulster County, the Adirondack Scenic between Utica and Lake Placid, and the Saratoga & North Creek near Saratoga Springs, N.Y. All three are government owned, in some cases by the county, in others by the State of New York. At least two--Catskill Mountain and Adirondack Scenic--operate primarily or entirely with volunteers. All three run excursion trains, one actually operates freight trains, and the other two do advertise as being willing to host freight. Lengths vary from 38 miles for the Catskill Mountain to well over 100 miles for the Adirondack Scenic. (map)

The trail people--liberal bicyclists in Ulster County, apparently conservative snowmobile people in the Adirondacks, and an unknown (at least to me) composition in the Saratoga case--all want to see these railroads gone and replaced with trails. Part of their arguments are that the railroads have failed to fulfill their promises of being reopened, or that they have failed to have an adequate economic impact, i.e., haven't brought in enough business, and that snowmobiles and bicycles will bring in more prosperity.

Against this, at least for me (disclosure: I'm a strong rail supporter), are several points:

1. The trail people will use public money to convert the trails. If done properly, this can run up to $1 million per mile. Part of the reason for this is that the ties leave "shadows" in the ground, partially due to the pounding of trains, compressing the ground beneath them. To eliminate these "shadows" you have to scrape the ballast off, sometimes part of the sub-ballast or roadbed, and regrade it. Otherwise the "ties" come back as shallow trenches across the roadway. I've actually seen this on a road--a driveway, actually--where people just drove on the abandoned roadbed, which had shallow ditches about 8 feet long running across it, about a foot apart. This was on a railroad that had been abandoned at least 20 years when I saw it.

2. Some people have apparently thought there would be little or no maintenance on the trail, vs. the regular work a railroad requires. Truth is, though, much of the work for something like this is the same, for railroad, trail, or regular road. Trees try to grow into the space above your right-of-way, looking for light. Weeds grow in ditches and clog them, causing drainage problems. Bridges still need work, as do tunnels where they exist. The surface--some sort of paving (gravel, graded ballast), or track--requires attention for things like frost heaves and general erosion. This sort of thing seems to be unmentionable by the trail people.

3. Perhaps most important of all is the thought that the time might be finally coming that we will really need those railroads. I'm old enough to remember when gasoline was 35 cents per gallon, and we thought it high. I'm also old enough to remember the first Arab oil embargo in 1973--now 40 years ago--and how gasoline jumped to 75 cents per gallon, I also remember being told it would never go to $1 per gallon, even after it had hit 75 cents. I guess in a way those people were right; we'll never see gasoline at $1 per gallon--again.

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