Railroad Suit Background and Status

On June 1, 2015 the Lake Colby Association filed a suit demanding repairs and inspections of the Lake Colby - Colby Pond Causeway before trains try to cross it again.

The last freight train passed over the causeway on Lake Colby in 1972.  This ¼ mile section of the Remsen – Lake Placid Corridor was built at the turn of the last century and served our communities well until alternate forms of transportation doomed its profitability.  Since then the only use of the causeway and the other 81 miles of track on the corridor north from Remsen to Saranac Lake has been to ferry the engine and rolling stock back and forth to Utica so the 9-mile Adirondack Scenic Railroad (ASR) can operate between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake.   Under its lease to operate that service the Adirondack Railway Preservation Society (ARPS, ASR’s parent) is contractually obligated to maintain and inspect the tracks.

To us lay people the tracks began to look unsuitable for rail traffic many years ago, but we assumed that the State was insuring their integrity.  However, in recent years it did not take an engineering degree to see that the very suggestion that these missing ties and eroded causeway banks could safely support a 256,000 pound engine seemed absurd.  Then, in 2014, the tourist train derailed several times on tracks with real ties set on real ballast and connected with real spikes, something the causeway has lacked for years (see May 15, 2014 photos below).

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Since the causeway bifurcates what once was one lake, a derailment could dump that 256,000 pound engine into either body of water.  The environmental consequences are unfathomable and the mind boggles at what would be needed to get it out of the water (rebuild the railroad so a crane could come in?). 

Earlier this year our board decided that lay opinions on safety were merely speculative and that we needed a professional opinion.  We hired North Woods Engineering to tell us if the rails were safe for train traffic.   Their report to us stated “It is our professional opinion that the existing Causeway slope condition in the section directly west of the bridge is not stable ... we consider [it] to be potentially unsuitable for locomotive traffic.”  Our board decided that it had to act.

We shared these findings with our neighbor association on Lake Clear, who also had concerns about the safety of the tracks at the edge of their lake, and they joined us in demanding State action.  On May 20 after a special board meeting we then sent a registered letter to the NYSDOT Commissioner, chief legal counsel, and the two regional directors responsible for the corridor.  The letter stated “At its meeting today our board passed a resolution calling for all railroad operations on the Remsen-Lake Placid corridor that cross the Lake Colby causeway to be suspended until the corridor is made safe for such operations. We are joined in this demand by our friends at the Lake Clear Association, another group hosting unsafe tracks in areas that could affect both the environment and public safety. … Please acknowledge this request and your intent to honor it no later than May 31, 2015. In the event NYSDOT does not implement a ban on further train transits of the causeway until the prior conditions are met, or fails to notify us or that ban by May 31, it is our intention to seek a court injunction against further train transits of the causeway.”

Knowing that the return of the train was imminent we hoped for a quick response.  We got nothing back, not even a phone call.  So our Association hired the law firm of Stafford, Owens, Piller, Murnane, Kelleher & Trombley to seek a court order that would require repairs and an inspection before the train could again cross the causeway.  On June 24 the court said that jurisdiction for such action was properly federal, not state, a technical loss that does not address the fundamental issue: the tracks are unsafe.

And a curious thing happened: a few weeks after our letter to the State a maintenance crew dumped loads of gravel along the causeway covering eroded ballast and the areas with missing ties, spikes and spacers.   No structural work was done, but the obvious lack of structural integrity was now obscured. 

In reply to our suit the ARPS claimed that plans to repair the tracks were in the works and imminent and that they regularly performed such maintenance each spring.   We question that statement and have photos of the rails and eroded banks going back many years (here is one from 2013) that would seem to show that there has been almost no basic repair work done while the ties have literally disappeared, spikes are missing, and the causeway has eroded away under the last remaining rail supports. 

Our only motivation has been insuring the safety of the train transit and we are in no way opposed to such use IF it is declared safe by the State, not ARPS who despite the multiple derailments are still the only ones who inspect the tracks.  We hope public opinion will now do what the court would not.

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