NY judge sides with railroad in trail case

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An Adirondack Scenic Railroad passenger train to Thendara, N.Y., prepares to depart the station at Big Moose, N.Y. The four-car train is powered by RS18 No. 1845, built by Montreal Locomotive Works in 1958. This line was previously the New York Central’s Adirondack Division, and saw as many as 10 passenger trains a day.
Alex Mayes
Segments of the former New York Central line between Utica and Saranac Lake, N.Y., over which trains have operated under the Adirondack Scenic Railroad banner.
Adirondack Scenic Railroad
MALONE, N.Y. — A New York Supreme Court judge is siding with the Adirondack Scenic Railroad in a ruling in favor of the group’s lawsuit opposing the state’s plan to remove 34 miles of track between Lake Placid and Tupper Lake, N.Y. The state had wanted to replace the rails with a multi-use trail, the Adirondack Daily Enterprise reported. New York's Supreme Court is the lower, or trial court.

The legal action by the Adirondack Railway Preservation Society, which operates the scenic railroad, was filed last year and contended that New York’s departments of Environmental Conservation, Transportation, and the Adirondack Park Agency ignored economic development and historic preservation factors in greenlighting the railroad’s removal.

In his ruling, acting state Supreme Court Justice Robert Main Jr. sided with the Society. Main ruled that removing railroad infrastructure to construct a trail would effectively remove Segment 2 from Remsen-Lake Placid Travel Corridor designation. Such a use could not be allowed in the Adirondack Park State Land Master Management Plan for the travel corridor, the judge wrote.

The railroad alleged the state’s decision to build a rail trail was arbitrary and capricious, and Main agreed. He said the state did not successfully resolve historic preservation efforts or title issues to land within the corridor. Attorneys representing the society say the state may have to reroute part of its trail near Saranac Lake if they cannot sort out ownership issues for the railroad that the trail would replace.

Legal counsel from the state’s attorney general’s office, representing the state, said that while state officials did review economic data submitted by the railroad, it is not required to adopt plans based on that information. The state's lawyer also presented a letter to the court pledging to establish a mitigation plan for any historical preservation issues. But the judge found those arguments inadequate.

“Today’s decision is a victory for the thousands of people who have contacted my office over the past several years objecting to the removal of a large segment of the railroad infrastructure on the Remsen to Lake Placid Travel Corridor,” New York State Assemblyman Anthony Brindisi, D-Utica, told the Enterprise. “Officials with the Adirondack Scenic Railroad have been in limbo for a long time, and this ruling allows them to proceed with plans for a Utica to Lake Placid railroad line."

The trail versus rail issue has been brewing for years. The former New York Central line runs 141 miles from Utica to Lake Placid, with the state owning 119 miles from Remsen to Lake Placid. Adirondack Scenic has leased the line from the state and has been operating tourist trains over two segments: from Utica to the Old Forge area since the early 1990s, and from 2000 through 2016 between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake. The intervening 69 miles from Big Moose to Saranac Lake has been allowed to deteriorate. This 10-mph excepted track only received enough maintenance so that empty Saranac Lake-Lake Placid equipment could move to Utica for repairs and winter storage, though the Society would like the state to help it restore service over the entire route.

In 2016, at the behest of trail advocates, the state finalized a plan to remove the track between Tupper Lake and Lake Placid and replace them with a trail. To appease the railroad’s backers, the state plan also called for upgrading 45 miles of track from Big Moose to Tupper Lake to allow the continuation of tourist train operations. While the case was in court, the state moved ahead with plans for the trail. It did not issue a permit to the railroad to run trains over the most northern portions of the line this year. It also did not permit Rail Explorers to operate rail car rides out of Saranac Lake, as that company had done for two years.

Until the mid-1960s, New York Central ran sleeping cars from Grand Central Terminal directly to Lake Placid, a popular ski and tourism destination. The line was acquired by the state from Penn Central and rehabilitated for passenger service for the 1980 Winter Olympics held in Lake Placid. In 2015, the railroad carried more than 74,000 passengers, up from 42,655 in 2009.
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