On an overcast day at the end of October, about 25 tanker railcars rolled through the small town of North Creek, New York, north of Saratoga Springs. They were heading for Minerva in Essex county to join a couple of dozen other railcars parked earlier in the month on a 30-mile stretch of track that cuts through the Adirondack Forest Preserve. Their growing presence in the park, where the branch could accommodate up to 2,000 cars, has rankled some local residents and conservation groups.
But railroad tracks, for the most part, are privately owned and federally managed, leaving some states and local municipalities without legal recourse. Add to that market fluctuations for goods hauled by rail and the expansion of new pipelines that transport oil and gas more cheaply than trains, and idled railcars can start to pile up. As of October, 2017, nearly 350,000 railcars of the 1.6 million freight cars operating in North America were in storage, according to the American Association of Railroads.
With rail yards reaching capacity, it’s common for freight car owners to lease track space from railroads that may have a secondary railway line or a bypass track, called a siding, said Bill Stephens, a correspondent for Trains magazine, who has been covering the business end of the train industry since the early 1990s.
“Storing cars is one way to make money with very little cost,” said Stephens.
At issue in the Adirondacks are stored tanker cars, of the type that transport crude oil. Federal regulations do not require that parked railcars be free of oil, gas or other hazardous materials. On some occasions, tanker cars have temporarily stored crude oil as it awaited shipment. That tanker cars parked in the Adirondack Preserve could potentially leak oil into the environment had many folks from New York’s Warren and Essex counties upset when they first heard about the storage plans back in July, 2015.
Pressed by those concerns, the railway’s owner, Ed Ellis, CEO of the Chicago-based Iowa Pacific Holdings, asked the owners of the railcars to have them scrubbed at a federally certified cleaning facility, which costs about $3,500 for each, he said. “We told Warren County that we would not store any cars with residue there,” said Ellis. “We store them everywhere else, except in the Adirondacks. We made an exception.”
That information hasn’t quelled concerns among conservation groups. “We have asked for and not received any information from our state department of transportation about the inspections that the company claims have been done on these railcars,” said Peter Bauer, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks, one of the groups active in pushing back on the storage of the railcars. “The state of these cars is an open question.”
Cleaned or not, storing train cars is not an appropriate use of the preserve, said Bauer. The 30-mile Sanford Lake Branch, which runs north from North Creek, New York, to its terminus at Tahawus mine, hugs the Hudson and Boreas rivers at times and runs for 13 miles through the Adirondack Forest Preserve.
“We are faced with the potential of seeing that track become a storage facility that could be this 30-mile junkyard snaking through the forest preserve, running along some of the grandest rivers in the state and threatening and undermining the scenic beauty and the environmental value of the Adirondack Park,” said Bauer.
Ellis said the railcars still have a good 20 or 30 years left in them and are being stored on a siding in the middle of nowhere. Photographs of the parked cars that can be found online show the trains ensconced in a thick forest of pine trees. “The people who took those pictures were trespassing. They were clearly standing on our property,” said Ellis.
Many opponents say that because of a “forever wild” clause, known as Article IVX, in the law that established the Adirondack Park back in 1892, the railroad shouldn’t be there in the first place. It was built during World War II, after the federal government used eminent domain to acquire a 100-foot-wide temporary easement, so that it could haul titanium ore from Tahawus mine down to the main line at Saratoga Springs. Since those days, the railroad has exchanged hands a couple of times.
Eventually, Iowa Pacific Holdings stepped in. In 2011, they established the Saratoga and North Creek Railway, which leases track from the town of Corinth as well as Warren county and owns track in Essex county. Ellis said that when the opportunity originally came up to purchase the track, he went to town officials in those counties and suggested that they buy it, since they owned the rest of the track that extended south to Saratoga Springs. “Neither of them had any money,” said Ellis. “They said, ‘Ed, you should buy the line.’ So we did.”
Ellis said his company has spent millions of dollars maintaining the track as well as updating bridges and crossings. The company had expected to operate trains for tourism and to haul rock from the mine, but so far neither of those ventures has panned out financially. “We are still working toward that,” said Ellis.
Until then, the company is leasing space to idled cars as a way to recoup the company’s investment. “Why isn’t it a good idea for us to earn our money back?” he said.
On Monday, Nov. 6, Ellis posted a video to Youtube of a song he penned that advocates his position. “Keeping Tracks” is sung to the tune of “Home on the Range” and has the refrain:
Home, home on the tracks
Where the deer and the blackbear still play
There is no need to fight
The cars are not in sight
You see wilderness every which way
The conflict in upstate New York is not the first of its kind. Last year, residents of Pittsfield and Saline, Michigan, expressed concerns over parked railcars owned by Ann Arbor Railroad.
For the last three years, the Uptown Triangle Neighborhood in New Orleans, Louisiana has been urging city officials as well as the New Orleans Public Belt Railroad to stop parking tanker cars along the two-mile length of track that parallels Leake Avenue.
In Lakeville, Minnesota, neighbors started circulating a petition in March, 2017, to fight Progressive Rail, which has been storing railcars along a track there for eight years.
This past October, the Chicago-based real estate developer, Sterling Bay, filed a legal notice with Chicago, explaining why a couple dozen empty tanker cars—owned by Iowa Pacific Holdings—should not be stored on a track in the Goose Island neighborhood because they were bringing down property values.
For locals fighting against the storage of railcars in their backyards, it’s an uphill battle. Because railroads are a national network, economic and safety regulations are almost exclusively the domain of the federal government, said Stephens of Trains magazine. “There is limited authority that local entities have over rail movement.”
Neil Woodworth, executive director and legal counsel for the Adirondack Mountain Club, thinks there may be a legal case against Iowa Pacific Holdings. At the moment, the cars are parked on a siding and not on the active line. But if they start showing up on the branch line, said Woodworth, that could violate the terms of the easement as it was originally drawn up during World War II.
“If the railroad can no longer can be used for the purpose for which the easement was granted,” said Woodworth, “…it reverts back to the state of New York and is reincorporated back into the Forest Preserve.”
For now, concerned citizens and conservation groups are appealing to New York state’s Adirondack Park Agency and Department of Environmental Conservation as well as Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office.
Ellis said that in 2015, when the issue of storing cars on the branch came up, he wrote to Governor Cuomo and explained his plans. “There was no objection,” said Ellis.
If opposition efforts fail, locals will have to wait until the temporary easement expires to reclaim the land. That’s scheduled for 2062.
Tracy Staedter is a science writer and editor covering the environment, energy, food and urban resilience. Follow at @tracy_staedter