Tourists enjoy the Adirondack Scenic Railroad at the Union Depot in Saranac Lake.
Within several years, operators of a tourist excursion train here hope to see high-end visitors from New York City traveling to the Olympic village the old-fashioned way: on a restored Pullman sleeping car.
The pricey trips could help resurrect the 118-mile Adirondack Railroad corridor between Remsen and Lake Placid, a goal of the Adirondack Railway Preservation Society (ARPS), which currently operates the Adirondack Scenic Railroad excursions around Lake Placid and Old Forge. And the Pullman trips are only possible with the help of Iowa Pacific Holdings, LLC, a global railroad company.
“It’s great news for the region,” ARPS President Bill Branson said shortly after the partnership announcement was made in a press release Oct. 25. “It’s great news for all these little towns and villages that need a little boost.”
Iowa Pacific already has experience in the Adirondack Park; it operates the Saratoga & North Creek Railway, which offers daily service from Saratoga Springs to North Creek in the warm months, a Polar Express train during the holiday season, and a Snow Train for skiers in the winter. It also connects to Amtrak service in Saratoga, making it possible for tourists to travel from New York City to North Creek in one day for several days of the week during the summer.
“We are grateful to ARPS for the opportunity to work together on a project that can bring a dramatic rail service improvement to the Adirondacks,” Iowa Pacific Holdings President Ed Ellis said in the press release. “Iowa Pacific has been working to revive rail corridors across the U.S. and in other countries for freight and passenger service for over a decade, and our recent success with the Saratoga and North Creek is an indication of what can be done in the Adirondack market.”
Ellis said he believes 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.
“While we are quite aware of the structural challenges involved in developing this kind of service, we believe we are uniquely qualified to assist ARPS and this agreement is a first milestone in working toward the vision,” Ellis said in the release.
ARPS and Iowa Pacific have entered into a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that establishes their new working partnership.
Under the agreement, the parties will work together on the full development of a joint plan that can be submitted to the New York State Department of Transportation and form the basis of business discussions with Amtrak and other stakeholders. Iowa Pacific will bear the equipment and operating costs and risks, and will be open to partnering in the costs of capital improvements required on the rail line, to be defined as part of the full plan. The plan will also include outreach to several of the major hotels and resorts in Lake Placid.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do, and we’ve got a few hurdles that we’re going to have to work very hard at to make happen,” Branson said. “The corridor’s going to need a lot of work before we can run trains up there.”
ARPS officials thought of the Pullman car idea and called Iowa Pacific in 2011, according to Branson. They’ve been working on a draft of the plan all summer. They’ve seen what Iowa Pacific did in North Creek.
“What they’re doing over there is great, but Ed Ellis, the president of Iowa Pacific has railroads all over the country, in the U.K. and South America,” Branson said. “They’re proven successful operators, and I believe they have the interest of the region at heart. There are just so many ways that so many people can benefit from this, and he gets it.”
Iowa Pacific owns the Pullman Sleeping Car Company, which restores Pullman passenger, dining and sleeping cars from the glory days of high-end train travel and offers excursions. There are 70 cars in various stages of restoration.
This year, the company is launching Pullman Rail Journeys, operating high-end overnight excursions similar to those operated in many areas of Europe, such as the famous Orient Express. The first tour venture will begin in early November from Chicago to New Orleans, with sleeping accommodations ranging from $1,950 for a Class B bedroom and $2,850 for a Class A master bedroom. Class D accommodations run $600 for upper berths and $900 for lower berths. That’s a one-way price, according to the website.
Passengers would leave in New York City, head to Albany, then to Utica and north on the Adirondack Railroad to Lake Placid.
But the Pullman trips won’t start anytime soon.
“I think this is going to take a couple years to get things done, but that’s OK,” Branson said. “This is a long-term deal, and we intend to have it in the ground and operating to benefit the people of New York for years.”
When launched, the initial run for the first season would be 20 trains over the good-weather months, increasing to 30 and multiple runs a week so people can come up on a Friday and stay the weekend or the week.
“A lot of it’s going to depend on the scheduling,” Branson said. “If we’re partnering with another railroad to get us partway — for example Amtrak or Metro North — a lot of it will depend on their schedule.”
Branson doesn’t anticipate running any Snow Trains like they do from Saratoga Springs to North Creek because the railbed is used by snowmobilers in the winter.
“We’re interested in continuing to operate the Adirondack Scenic Railroad as it does now with the same sort of programs and excursions and adding this,” Branson said.
Despite calls from the Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates (ARTA) to tear up the tracks and build a 90-mile recreation trail, ARPS is standing behind its plans to build a recreation trail beside the tracks between Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake. The town of North Elba is already planning to build a recreation trail next to the tracks between Saranac Lake and Lake Placid.
“That is absolutely our wish, and it’s not that hard to do and there’s an awful lot of trail alongside the track already,” Branson said. “These are not conflicting perspectives. Folks at ARTA seem to think the rails shouldn’t be there, but they’re wrong and they’re short sighted in their view. And frankly, anybody who would deny these communities the opportunity to have access to this, especially with future freight, is foolish.”