SARANAC LAKE — Adirondack Scenic Railroad operators have released numbers countering claims that their business is a failed experiment.
Nearing the end of its tourist season, Adirondack Railroad Preservation Society filled four cars in a ride rally trip dubbed “This Train is Bound for Glory.”
More than 200 people gathered at Depot Station in Saranac Lake on Thursday for an hour-long update on train marketing and plans to add Pullman sleeper trips from New York City to Lake Placid.
The proposed expansion comes in a partnership with Iowa Pacific Holdings, which operates historic railroads worldwide.
Iowa Pacific also owns the Pullman Sleeping Car Company based in Chicago.
Railroad Preservation President Bill Branson defended the operation, which has come under fire in the past 18 months.
“We have tried as best we can to take the high road. We are going to ignore most of the noise,” he said.
Lobbyist group Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates is pushing to have the tracks removed from Lake Placid to Tupper Lake, hoping, eventually, to open a biking/snowmobile path corridor, without tracks, the entire route to Utica.
The corridor is owned by the State Department of Transportation, which has not updated its management plan since 1996. The 119-mile Lake Placid-Remsen line is largely unused except for about 30 miles of scenic trains on either end.
The North Elba Town Council passed a resolution recently supporting removal of the tracks.
But railroad preservationists said their ridership is growing.
Bethan Maher, a Preservation Society officer, said it rose 8 percent this year.
Through Oct. 13, there were 22,500 passengers traveled by train between Saranac Lake and Lake Placid.
“We are bringing people into our downtowns and have extended our layovers,” she said.
“We do not have operating subsidies from anybody,” Branson said.
And the company is not losing money.
The Scenic Railroad made $5,400 last year, Branson said, explaining that train staff is largely volunteer.
The railroad company made the last payment last week on a $460,000 loan, he added.
“We look forward to the day when we owe nothing to no one.”
Branson looked to the new agreement with Iowa Pacific as an avenue of “real economic growth.”
“We can sell this (Iowa Pacific) project to the people who are decision-makers. We’re worth having around.”
In a video presentation at the rally, several local business owners in Saranac Lake agreed.
“I notice a drop off (in pedestrian traffic) when the train is not running,” Cindy Morrow said of her Adirondack Trading Company business.
David Cilley, who owns St. Regis Canoe Outfitters, listened at the rally to the railroad’s plan for growth.
“It’s fantastic,” he said of the Pullman plan.
“We’ve thought for years of having the train stop at Floodwood.”
Cilley has one outfitter outpost at the Floodwood Station.
“Ridership was up this year; more than double last year,” he confirmed of his train-canoe trips.
A WILD RIDE
About 10 new excursions are envisioned by the Adirondack North Country Association, which is coordinating the new rails-with-trails path beside the tracks from Lake Placid to Saranac Lake.
Association President Kate Fish said ideas for scenic train trips include adding a Polar Express here. Adirondack Scenic Railroad runs an extremely successful Polar trip on the southern end of the line.
Other plans look to a Localvore Locomotive trip to Lake Clear, a Wild Ride to Tupper Lake and an Olympic Torch Run.
Fish said the recreation path from Lake Placid to Ray Brook is moving forward and should be completed in 18 months.
She also provided a map showing miles of vacant railroad beds throughout the North Country that could be converted to recreational trails.
One trail on her map
connects Ray Brook to Plattsburgh.
An independent study done for the railway company this year showed scenic trains bring an $8 million to $9 million economic impact to the region even without the Lake Placid to New York City Pullman trip, Branson said.
He anticipates it would cost between $15 million and $18 million to restore the tracks to Utica, where Amtrack would provide connecting sleeper-car service to New York City.
Money for the upgrade would come from both private and public investment.
Many local leaders took the “Bound for Glory” trip, including North Elba Councilman Bob Miller, who drafted that town’s resolution to remove the tracks.
Asked what he thought of the Iowa Pacific venture, he was unsure.
“Do you think it will really happen?” he asked.
Nonetheless, he stood open-minded about the issue, and he climbed into the open air car.
“It’s good to learn,” he said. “We’ll see.”
Miller rode with Saranac Lake Trustee Barbara Rice, Franklin County Legislator Tim Burpoe and former North Elba Councilor Derek Doty.
Tupper Lake Mayor Paul Maroun, Senator Betty Little (R-Queensbury) and Assemblywoman Janet Duprey
(R-Peru) were also on the
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