A national railroad tourism company wants to run upscale passenger service between New York City and Lake Placid, using the former New York Central line out of Utica.
While still years away from actually happening, it could potentially mark the most active use of the 119-mile rail line through the wild central Adirondacks in a half-century.
Iowa Pacific Holdings of Chicago and the Adirondack Rail Preservation Society on Thursday announced they had signed a memorandum of agreement to work together to develop the service.
Iowa Pacific Holdings operates the Saratoga & North Creek Railroad, and also a half-dozen other tourism lines in the West. It also owns the Pullman Sleeping Car Co., and is restoring historic Pullman passenger, sleeping and dining cars.
“We believe the higher-end travel audience in New York City is ready to respond to a first-class overnight experience on historic Pullman cars through the Adirondacks to Lake Placid,” said Ed Ellis, president of Iowa Pacific Holdings.
Iowa Pacific says the Saratoga & North Creek line has been successful since it was launched in 2010. The company also has federal permission to extend freight service from North Creek northward to Newcomb, once track repairs are complete.
The Adirondack Rail Preservation Society, a nonprofit organization, currently holds a lease on the line, which is owned by New York state. The society operates seasonal tourism trains around Old Forge, and between Saranac Lake and Lake Placid.
The line actually starts in Remsen — about 15 miles north of Utica. It was built by Dr. William Seward Webb and other investors during the 1890s, when the western Adirondacks were still full of great lakeside estates. Now, the line runs through some of the wildest and remotest spots in the Adirondack Park, in some cases lying miles from the nearest road.
The line carried passengers as part of the New York Central Railroad system until 1965. It was abandoned in 1972, and the state Department of Transportation bought it in 1975.
Some people think it would be better if the tracks were removed.
A Saranac Lake group, the Adirondack Recreation Trail Advocates, has been pushing for conversion of the right-of-way into a bicycle and recreation trail. The organization has collected more than 8,500 signatures on an online petition calling for this to happen.
The rail-to-trail effort has garnered support from some towns and villages along the route, and from the New York State Snowmobile Association. But any decision to remove the rails would be up to DOT.
The president of the Adirondack Railway Preservation Society said the tracks should remain, and a redeveloped rail line would have economic and environmental benefits.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt this is the best use for it. Once it’s gone, it’s gone,” said society President Bill Branson.
The society has operated short-run seasonal trains on parts of the line since 1992, but a study has estimated bringing the tracks up to passenger-service standards would cost about $16 million.
Under the memorandum of understanding, the two parties will work together to develop a joint plan that can be submitted to DOT for approval, and could serve as a basis for business discussions with Amtrak and other parties. It says Iowa Pacific would be willing to contribute toward the capital costs.
It’s unknown how long it will take to clear those hurdles, if they can be cleared.
“We have a plan, and we’ll see how far we can get,” Branson said.
A fully redeveloped rail line would lead to creation of about 250 permanent jobs, he said, as well as about 300 temporary construction jobs.
Regional economic development backers praised the idea of re-established rail service.
“This interest by one of the nation’s premier rail companies in resuming service along the Utica-Lake Placid rail corridor is very exciting news,” said Kate Fish, executive director of the Adirondack North Country Association.
The North Country Chamber of Commerce also issued a statement of support.
“This could be a major economic boost for an area that needs it,” Branson said.