Monday, August 13, 2018

Unnecessary dangers of the Cotton Valley Trail

Now that the Cotton Valley Trail is complete from Wolfeboro to Wakefield, bike use has increased steadily. It was already a popular ride, but now it actually goes somewhere instead of just out into the woods.

The Cotton Valley Trail has always had more problems than the typical multi-use path, because of the rails left in place for use by the rail car club. The rail car club beat out the non-motorized users when the right of way became available, so all other uses have to bow to them.

Due to the chronic lack of funds for things that actually improve the quality of life for ordinary citizens, there was never enough money to upgrade the trail corridor to safely and pleasantly accommodate the incompatible uses of walkers and riders sharing space with motorized conveyances that of necessity hog the entire width of the rails. In many places, the space between the rails is the only improved surface.

When I was a kid, we used to play on railroad tracks, including bridges. We understood all too well that if we got ourselves killed out there we would be in big trouble for interfering with the smooth operation of the railroad. And if we interfered with the trains and didn't get killed, we would wish that we had. But those were real working railroads.

For years we had noticed that the rail car people seldom put their vehicles on the tracks on the section that runs from Route 109 east down into Wolfeboro. The tracks were removed completely from the mile-long Bridge-Falls Path from downtown Wolfeboro to Center Street in Wolfeboro Falls. From there, the path was sited next to the rails out to the public boat launch at Mast Landing. The path goes between the rails at that point and stays in that nerve-wrackingly narrow space all the way across the first causeway to Whitten Neck Road. After a brief, enjoyable diversion a few yards away from the rails, the path goes back between them for the second, longer causeway across a section of Lake Wentworth.

When you asked the authorities in charge of the trail what could be done to make the crossings safer and the railed sections less stressful, you'd get a mumble of excuses about how the rails had to be there because they were there and to shut up and be grateful. Meanwhile, injuries have piled up, ranging from abrasions and contusions to broken hips, cracked ribs, and the occasional collapsed lung. And the rails almost never see a rail car. In the latest raft of excuses, we were told that the rails are there so that the rail car people can help with mowing and maintenance. The rarity of those work details hardly seems like it's worth the price in damage and injury to bicyclists. But bicyclists come at the bottom of any hierarchy, whether it's on the road or on a path like this. The message is, "suck it up or quit riding."

On Sunday, I left my car at the Allen A Beach parking area and walked to work. It was a rainy day and I didn't feel like riding, but I didn't want to drive into the chronic gridlock of Wolfe City in the summer, or take up scarce parking in our little lot. The walk gave me a chance to document just some of the many unnecessary dangers and inconveniences of the Cotton Valley Trail. It could be entirely great if these were addressed. If some of them aren't addressed, we could lose the whole trail to erosion exacerbated by the presence of the unused rails.

The latest Cotton Valley Trail brochure actually states that rail cars are only used from Fernald Station out to Wakefield. There are many other ways to mow and trim a trail. It is time for the rails to go, and for the trail to be widened and graded for safer use and better drainage.

Look carefully at this first picture. On the left you can just see the rails, buried in vegetation that has been neither mowed nor trimmed in a long time. Imagine that as usable trail width. And this is on a relatively wide section.
At the River Street crossing, the trail moves to the left of the tracks. Again, imagine the generous space available if the rails were gone or buried beneath well-packed fill. It would double the available width. The right of way is already there. The brochure claims that the right of way is 66 feet wide. That much space is never used for the trail.

Sam, you made the ties too wide: These two pictures show the first examples in which the trail is reduced by the protruding tie ends, sometimes covered by vegetation, in other places just hanging out there.  It gets worse.
Oh wait, what's that? Did someone drop something? A hat? A bandanna?
Nope. It's a rock. Someone kindly painted it orange. It protrudes because the fill has settled or washed away. Spray paint is cheaper than actually doing anything about it.
This picture shows how much trail width has been lost because ground covering plants have not been controlled. I suppose this is better than having it lathered with carcinogenic defoliants, but then a wider packed trail surface would achieve the same thing without poisoning anyone.
Even if they didn't remove the rails, the trail would be half again as wide if they just filled and packed up to the near rail.
Here's how much width they would gain if they got rid of the useless rails.

This section of protruding tie ends coincides with a retaining wall. An outbound cyclist, trying to accommodate oncoming traffic, can only fade to the right as far as the ends of the ties. An already narrow trail becomes even narrower. Those rude cyclists! Why do they insist on riding?
Two-way traffic has to get past each other in a space easily spanned by my short little legs.

Not much farther out, tie protrusion is much worse. Lots of dirty looks from pedestrians there, when the oncoming cyclist doesn't scooch right up against the rail to make room. When it's two cyclists passing, one or both equipped with the currently fashionable absurdly wide handlebars, you have to wonder why they don't get tangled more often. They should dismount, right?

What do you call a bike rider who dismounts? A pedestrian.

Approaching Mast Landing you get another good look at wasted space and more protruding tie ends. The rail crossing at the boat ramp has been considerably improved. They filled it in so that the rails are flush with the pavement. This makes them useless to the rail car people, but still slippery when wet for the riders. Non-skid tape is applied occasionally... it's one of the better crossings, and yet it wouldn't need to be there at all if the unused rails were removed.

Just past Mast Landing, the trail goes between the rails to traverse this little residential section. Residential or not, the right of way could support a comfortably wide trail with the rails removed, and it wouldn't turn into the "Cotton Valley Canal" after a heavy rain. Cotton Valley Canal sections are common between here and the Allen A. The rails hold water in the trail bed, just like an aqueduct. If you get there soon enough after a heavy rain, you can ride in water inches deep for many yards. Many, many yards. Riding it during a downpour last week, I was pedaling up a flowing stream for miles, not mere yards.

Welcome to the jungle. These shade-tolerant shrubs, well-watered by the irrigation provided by the Cotton Valley Canal, are flourishing under the conspicuous lack of maintenance.
This shot shows how much trail is lost to the plants. My right foot isn't quite at the rail that indicates the already inadequate width of trail available without the incursion of the foliage.

Here's some trailside erosion on the Crescent Lake causeway. If a rider moves right and wants to put a foot down, it's a long way down. And this is a minor example of erosion compared to the next causeway, across Lake Wentworth.
Imagine this part of the causeway without rails. There's plenty of width for more trail as well as the trailside benches and fishing spots that users already enjoy.

And then there's this. The erosion is undercutting the trail. The rails may be holding it in, but their long-term, barely utilized presence has prevented anyone from properly stabilizing and grading the causeway for longer-term survival and usability.

Beyond Whitten Neck Road, the trail takes a fun little up-and-over, leading to a level section with some sweeping bends. Nice! Except when it rains.
 See the rails over there? They're on a built up level with ditches on either side. And basically no one uses them. The path, meanwhile, is over here, with a little swale to the left and a slope to the right, channeling runoff into it.
At the end of this stretch, the path kinks left to launch riders into another section between the rails.

When I walked the path on Sunday, I saw riders coming toward me as I approached that crossing. As a rider myself, I knew what I would want a pedestrian to do. I walked up to the right of the rails rather than stepping between them exactly at the crossing. I had barely taken my first step on the tie ends right next to the path when I felt a burning pain in my left calf. A wasp stung me, because there was a ground nest in the tie end right next to the path.
That tie end, right there. The pale one with the crack in it. Don't forget your epi pen.

Next causeway, new erosion issues. Here you can see that the fill has actually started to wash down from between the rails. That can spread quickly. 
Here's the outlet and its little gully.

Here are another couple of shots of nasty things for a cyclist to land on if an encounter with oncoming traffic goes wrong. It also shows more of the deterioration of the causeway structure itself.

Looking back toward the causeway, this is just another example of space wasted on the unused rails. On heavy traffic days, riders fan out onto the grass to gain a few places before they get squeezed between the rails again.

This sandy road crossing is usually quite unstable. When the sand is dry, it's very fluffy. The shape of the path going through the crossing does not help a rider set up a good, square angle of attack.
 On the plus side, the rails are often covered by the sand, so they're not as much of a crash hazard. On the minus side, on the rare occasions when a rail car user has come through, the rails are freshly dug out and protruding, and the sand is still soft and treacherous. If the rails are only dug out for "maintenance" operations on the non-motorized facilities of the trail, the danger they present is not worth the benefit they confer. That could be achieved in better ways. This spring, trail crews didn't use rail cars. They drove their personal vehicles in and half-blocked the path with them.

Here's more encroaching vegetation on the approach to the diversion into the Allen A Beach parking area.

I call this Pinch Flat Bridge. The edge of it protrudes more and more as fill settles and washes away. It gets refilled maybe once or twice a year. You get used to it.

The diversion into the Allen A isn't wide, but it's fun. For some reason it just works. 

When traffic is heavy, a rider can stay on the dirt road outside the trail, dive through a few yards down there at the corner, and bail into the beach parking lot itself to reach another dirt road on the far side.

Just watch out for Thumpy Stump, just before the corner. Thumpy Stump has been there for years. You get used to it. But it does suddenly reduce the available space to maneuver past each other.

The parking lot has a big gate in this fence, which is never closed. The path goes in this little gap. It was supposed to serve some purpose at some time. Now it's just another meaningless obstacle, as far as I can tell.

This fallen tree hasn't become a landmark yet, but it's been down for more than a week.

Because I didn't walk any further, I have no pictures beyond this point. There are railed sections between the Allen A and Route 109, all of which would be improved by the removal of the rails. They're just short bridges, but the sharp turns to get between and move out from the rails make them dangerous. The rails protrude when the fill settles, and minor crossings are more likely to be overlooked in a big list of maintenance tasks.

I do like the zigzag maneuvers that relieve the tedium of straight-ahead riding so common on rail trails. In a rail-less environment, I wouldn't mind seeing the ghosts of the crossings left there just to break the monotony. The trail could still be wider and smoother than it is, with the occasional chicane for entertainment. A wider trail would benefit all non-motorized users in and out of the railed sections.

Beyond Fernald, riders are still stuck with the rails for the foreseeable future. You take what you can get. Bike riders represent a much larger demographic than the rail car club, providing a more consistent economic engine. Accommodating them and encouraging them would make financial sense. But maybe a cost/benefit analysis would show that the returns wouldn't be worth the investment. As the trail is currently built, it does send business to the local hospital, and sometimes all the way to Boston, if the injuries are worth the air lift. We just have to work on attracting riders with good health insurance.

1 comment:

cafiend said...

An emergency room physician at the Wolfeboro hospital confirmed that they have seen numerous injuries caused by the presence of the rails in the Cotton Valley Trail.