Monday, June 10, 2013

Preservation: Amber past, or future-prep?

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This opinion piece should start off updating some of the ongoing debate between champions of rail rights-of-way restoration for rail use, and those wanting those rights-of-way for hiking or biking trails (get rid of those pesky trains). But first, a frontloaded digression: Anyone have a spare historic railcar?

That's the query uttered this summer by the Mountaintop Historical Society in Haines Falls, N.Y., a question I'm sure has been issued in locations nationwide at one time or another. Haines Falls was once a stop on the Ulster & Delaware Railroad, where trains delivered summertime crowds escaping the heat and humidity of coastal cities to the Catskill Mountains, long before “Borscht Belt” became an alliterative cliché.

The trains and tracks were lost long ago, even before the post-World War II near-wholesale dismantling of U.S. rail infrastructure. Haines Falls Station remains, an outlier and orphan of a century past, preserved by the Society amid second-growth forest that makes the station itself seem misplaced, moved from some other, better location on someone's lifesized basement trainset board.

The station's protectors marked its 100th birthday May 18, highlighted by the spiking of 132 feet of rail on the original cinder roadbed in front of the station (photo above). The roadbed had been excavated and ties laid out last fall, with the rail run out and bolted last April. Spiking was done in less than four hours by a crew of 16 inexperienced but altogether earnest volunteers under the direction of George Cook, a retired railroader, with leveling and ballasting to follow.

It's a nice local story, one I note because it's "local" to me (I frequent the turf), but one I'm sure has taken place at numerous places and times throughout the nation. At first glance, little is extraordinary about the good work done by this band of dedicated preservationists, at least beyond the measure of other like-minded citizens.

And maybe that's what's notable, and extraordinary, about Haines Falls and all the other rail preservation sites nationwide. Are those places being restored and then preserved in amber? Or by some trick of chance, are they being restored and preserved for what I sometimes call "future-prep"--some as-yet unforeseeable future use?

Talk to the preservationists themselves, as I did with Mountaintop Historical Society representatives over the Memorial Day weekend (graciously showing me their work), and of course they emphasize the real world, the need to deal with short-term goals, the basic drive to preserve the past. Nothing more. Let's stay real here, and all that.

And yet the caveat almost always creeps into the tone of voice, if not uttered in words itself: Wouldn't it be nice if ... as in "nice if we were a holding action, readying for rail's return." Few historical activists actually will say this; they'd be deemed crazy or worse, accused of losing sight of their preservation mission and etc.

No, right now, the search is on for a historically accurate surviving railcar, preferably of Ulster & Delaware origin but at least from some regionally appropriate fallen flag, one that can be parked on 132 feet of track, next to Haines Falls Station, to educate tourists and youngsters of what once was. Know of one? Let the Society know. Or contact me.

At this juncture we rejoin the main theme of this piece, the rails-against-trails debate.The Mountaintop Historical Society's query in 2013 has to cut through significant static generated by at least two ongoing New York State squabbles involving rail rights-of-way and their use, in the ongoing "rails versus trails" battle. One such spat pits New York's Ulster County against the Catskill Mountain Railroad, one of two area tourist operations not too terribly far from Haines Falls. Ulster County seeks to create a hiking trail from Kingston, N.Y., to the Ashokan Reservoir—no rail allowed.

To its great credit, Catskill Mountain Railroad has argued that rail and trail can co-exist. Detractors say the railroad itself isn't drawing enough tourists as it is, and any project should be trail and nothing else. That no-prisoners attitude is nothing new.

Adirondack MountainsNor is it limited to the Catskills, a region my brother lovingly calls the "training ground for the Adirondacks." In those larger Adirondack Mountains (photo at left), encompassed by a massive namesake state park, a similar (but fittingly larger and more acute) dispute is being played out, pitting local trail advocates against the Adirondack Scenic Railroad, operated by the Adirondack Railway Preservation Society (ARPS) over portions of 141 miles of right-of-way owned by the state.

New York's DOT and Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) are reviewing this route and, last week, invited public comment as part of a review process, which of course has de-evolved into a rail versus trail spat. The plan was for the former New York Central branch line to be held for future freight, and maybe even passenger, use.

Snowmobilers and hikers, including the Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates, and other groups (Sierra Club) see the future differently, with the Trail Advocates calling for existing rail infrastructure to be removed and a trail established between Old Forge and Lake Placid, N.Y. Six towns and villages so far concur.

ARPS has a partner, however, and one with railroad expertise: Saratoga & North Creek Railway, a subsidiary of Iowa Pacific Holdings, whose CEO Ed Ellis knows a thing or two about "real" railroading, protests by trails-only partisans about "economic reality" notwithstanding. A year ago, Chicago-based Iowa Pacific was cleared by the Surface Transportation Board to revive 30 miles of the railroad between North Creek and Newcomb, serving the eastern "High Peaks" within Adirondack State Park—ironically, a popular destination for hikers.

But rail professionalism (or enhanced access) isn't the real issue for the trail folk involved in the Adirondack Mountains. The real issue is one of real utility, be it passenger or freight, or both. Iowa Pacific CEO Ellis last year noted the market existed for rock and tailings left by previous industry to be hauled out. To me, that's utilizing railroads and their "green" advantage. The trail folk don't see that; they see railroads as a scourge the way Henry David Thoreau might have seen same 160 years ago.

Put most simply, the rail side seems to offer the reasonable "rails and trails" option. The trail side seems to hold a much more firm, inflexible stance. Rail advocates, freight and passenger, can claim this is nothing new. I'm on this side, though I'd be less than honest if I didn't note I've met my share of rail voices holding a mirror-image "all or nothing" no-negotiations attitude toward hikers, bicyclers, and others. Compromise used to be the American genius; it seems to escape us nowadays.

And then there are the preservationists, with no need to take sides on the rail and trail issue but (in the case of Haines Falls, N.Y.) being drowned out by the furor nonetheless. In a way, the preservationists sow the seeds for such discord, similar to the urban artists and pioneers who take the first steps in revitalizing city neighborhoods, only to be priced out of the reclaimed territory. The preservationists often save enough old railroad infrastructure to generate thoughts of rail's return, or alternately of a nice, quiet, passive trail for locals and second-home owners flocking to what once was undesirable. Friction follows.

Haines Falls, N.Y., and the Mountaintop Historical Society are nowhere near worrying about that yet, of course. All the Society seeks is a historic railcar to remind people of a storied past. Or so representatives say, and I've no reason not to believe them. But I find a small voice inside me wondering – just speculating, mind you; I'm not suggesting this for real – what if this is just the start of something larger?

Nah, of course not. Let's stay real here, and all that. That's the high ground Adirondack and Catskill anti-rail parties are claiming as their own. Rails and trails, how ludicrous. Having both, well, that would be making history.

Douglas John Bowen

Douglas John Bowen is Managing Editor of RAILWAY AGE. He also served as Editor of Intermodal Age from 1989 to 1991, and has held various positions at Inbound Logistics magazine, High Speed Transport News, The Journal of Commerce, and CNN/Money. Bowen began his journalism career at the Asbury Park Press, a New Jersey daily newspaper. A graduate of Rutgers University, Bowen resides in Hoboken, N.J. He served as president of the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers (NJ-ARP) from 1987 to 2000 and again from 2004 to 2010, serving on the NJ-ARP board from 1984 until 2012; he remains a member of the statewide organization.