Last month, the (Greater) Detroit Free Press told us of a section of trail the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (near Marquette) that had once been an active railroad, and will now be converted back to freight rail. "This is how it’s supposed to work," Humboldt Township Supervisor Joe Derocha told the Free Press, but it doesn't work that way as often as it should. In honor of that railroad, let's take a look at five rail-trails in the New York area that I'd like to see converted back to passenger use.
- The Harlem Valley Rail-Trail
The Berkshires and Taconics are beautiful in the fall. A hundred years ago you could have taken the train up to Copake, Chatham and even beyond to Pittsfield, North Adams and Boston. But if you're up for some leaf-peeping, your only option is the slow bus that winds its way up Route 7. And you can't even get to Millerton without a car - unless you take the train to Wassaic and ride your bike for over an hour on this trail.
- The Joseph P. Clarke Trail
Villages like Piermont, Sparkill, Orangeburg and Nanuet grew up around junctions where the old Erie Main Line intersected with north-south lines. These towns have decayed since the railroad stopped running. They have recovered a little with Rockland County's population boom and the popularity of Route 9W among racing cyclists, but they can't compete with the Thruway-fueled strip malls. If you want to live in a cute village like Piermont you can get halfway decent buses to the city, but local bus service is woefully inadequate. Regular train service, ideally connecting to the city through the "new" Main Line or the Northern Branch, would breathe new life into these towns.
- The South County Trailway, North County Trailway and Putnam Trailway
If you go to a place like Ardsley or Elmsford, you'll find a cluster of buildings very similar to what you'd see around a railroad station, and there's a good reason for that. When the buildings were built, there was a station there. Now these places are stuck in the middle of Westchester, and the people who live there have to take the bus or drive to stations on the Harlem and Hudson lines. Businesses that depended on a steady flow of commuters shut down long ago. In northern Westchester and Putnam County, bus service is so spotty that villages like Yorktown Heights and Mahopac are car-dependent.
These trails are popular with families on weekends, but during commuting hours they're essentially abandoned. Instead, they could run passenger service direct to Grand Central, or possibly even be connected with the subway system.
- The walkway Over the Hudson and Dutchess County Trailway
The Northeast Corridor, our country's highest volume train line, has a tremendous vulnerability: there is one single train line, with two to four tracks. If anything happens to that line, as it has several times over the past few years, all traffic in that section stops. There were once many parallel lines, but some have incompatible power systems and many don't have tracks anymore. The Poughkeepsie Bridge Route offers a valuable alternate route that in the past has allowed trains to bypass New York City and its tunnels completely, while still allowing New York-bound passengers to transfer to any of five radial lines.
- The Nyack-Piermont Trail
I've written before about the problems with New Jersey Transit's current plans to reactivate passenger service on the old Erie Northern Branch. The main challenge, from the point of view of funding, is a lack of what Jarrett Walker calls an "anchor" on the northern end. Villages like Norwood, Northvale, Demarest and Closter are too small to pencil out in the transit planners' metrics, and the planners can't imagine anyone being willing to upzone, so the planners build large park-and-rides to try to capture people who will drive from the sprawl further north.
We'd really want to see the planners ditch their crappy proprietary models and look at induced demand. But we can also look at strong anchors, which means Nyack. Nyack doesn't have the population of Englewood or even Tenafly, but it has enough to provide a nice anchor for the Northern Branch - which was why it ended there in the first place.
To get to Nyack means running trains through the part of the Northern Branch that's now the Nyack-Piermont Rail Trail. Which is unfortunate, because it's a nice trail with great views. But trails don't get people out of their cars. Trains do.