Improved train service – but not high-speed rail – could be in New York's future (2024)

Ground was broken two months ago in Las Vegas to bring high-speed rail to Los Angeles at a maximum speed of 186 mph, which four years from now is expected to cut the trip by train between the cities to half the driving time.

Massive viaducts and bridges are being constructed in California’s Central Valley for high-speed rail that will take passengers less than three hours to go from Los Angeles to San Francisco, with final statewide environmental clearance for the project announced last week.

In Florida, privately operated high-speed trains between Orlando and Miami began last year with a maximum speed of 130 mph. Amtrak is also considering high-speed rail service between Houston and Dallas that would take 90 minutes, compared with 4½ hours by car.

So is high-speed rail, still a rarity in the United States, in New York State’s future?

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No, but a 12-year-long state and federal review, “High Speed Rail Empire Corridor,” released early last year, provides a blueprint on how to reduce travel times and, perhaps most importantly, make travel more dependable in a rail system plagued by unreliability.

“There has been talk of having higher efficiency rail across upstate New York for decades,” said Bruce Becker, communications director and former president of Empire State Passengers Association. “I have two plastic bins full of old studies dating back to the 1960s. We are extremely hopeful that the current efforts to improve rail service will finally bring improvements.”

Improved train service – but not high-speed rail – could be in New York's future (1)

Unfinished study could threaten funding for upstate passenger rail upgrades

Without the study,passenger train advocates fear New York State won't be able to take full advantage of the geyser of rail dollars expected later this year.

Alternative 90B, chosen by the New York State Department of Transportation and the Federal Railroad Administration, with a cost of nearly $6 billion in 2017 dollars, would see trains travel at a peak speed of 90 mph, well below the sustained speeds of 125 mph typically considered the cutoff for high-speed rail in the U.S.

Although the environmental impact statement was concluded 18 months ago, there is still no timeline for when work on the rail corridor will start.

Matthew Janiszewski, upstate press spokesman for Gov. Kathy Hochul, called the rail corridor study “an important milestone.”

“The Department of Transportation is now working with the Federal Railroad Administration to identify and progress a pipeline of intercity passenger rail projects that will allow us to achieve the goal of faster, safer and more reliable rail service throughout the entire Empire Corridor,” Janiszewski told The Buffalo News.

High-speed rail is still largely elusive in America. Amtrak, which received $66 billion from the 2021 infrastructure bill, is pursuing numerous new routes across states and repairing old ones, but very few provide for high-speed rail.

Becker said it is not always about how fast a train can go.

“Increasing speed at low-speed areas – say going from 25 to 50 miles per hour – can be of greater benefit than increasing speeds from 70 to 90 miles per hour,” he said.

Improved train service – but not high-speed rail – could be in New York's future (3)

The study

The state study began under President Obama, who entered office with a goal of establishing a national high-speed rail network. Those plans were ultimately dashed in 2010, after Republican governors in Wisconsin, Florida and Ohio rejected federal money for train routes through their states.

The goals for improving rail service on the 463-mile corridor from Niagara Falls International Railway Station to Penn Station in New York City – 322 miles of it west of the Albany-Rensselaer Station – call for improving on-time performance to at least 90%, reducing travel time, increasing frequency of service and minimizing interference with freight rail, since CSX, alone, owns more than half of the Empire Corridor.

“Existing inadequate infrastructure to support rail operations limits Empire Corridor service,” the report said, contributing to trains that operate between Albany and Buffalo being late 52% of the time, with an average late time of almost 28 minutes.

Stephanie Clark, a Rochester transplant who frequently takes Amtrak to Buffalo to visit family members, said her experience is usually a good one, but there is room for improvement.

“There are some times where friends and family come to visit and the train stalls or we have major delays,” Clark said Sunday at the Buffalo Exchange Station, where she was returning home with two children and a grandchild.

Alternative 9B calls for the installation of 370 miles of track, upgrades to 17 grade crossings and warning systems, a new signal system and 74 undergrade bridges.

Significantly, the plan calls for a new dedicated third passenger track between Buffalo and Schenectady that would allow Amtrak to get around freight trains, a significant source of delays. There would also be a fourth track in limited locations.

While the maximum speed from Albany to Niagara Falls would be 90 mph, the average speed would be to 61 mph, 17% faster than current speeds. It would shave 90 minutes off the current timeline.

“We call it ‘higher-speed rail,’ internally,” said Janet Ho, DOT assistant commissioner for finance and integrated modal systems. “The public perception of high-speed rail is what you see in other countries, and coming out of the EIS, you can just see there are a large number of hurdles in New York State to get us there at that level.

“Reliability is key for people, and I think we recognize that and understand that,” she said.

The plan envisions doubling the number of daily round trips to Albany to eight, with four round trips added between Albany and New York City.

The study projected a capital cost of $5.97 billion and a ridership increase of 2.6 million passengers in 2035, a gain of 1 million annually if the current system is not updated. Both estimates used 2017 data and are being revisited.

The plan was also estimated to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 33,000 metric tons per year.

Higher speeds

Two alternatives called for higher speeds, but brought their own share of challenges and costs.

One would allow a maximum speed of 110 mph, but still averaged 63 mph. Unlike Alternative 90B, which would have land use impacts in nine areas in six counties, Alternative 110 would require acquiring land in 53 areas in eight counties. The project cost was $6.7 billion.

For Alternative 125, which would allow trains to go 125 mph, 2,000 to 3,000 acres in 12 counties would have to be acquired to construct the sealed high-speed rail corridor, disrupting wetlands, potentially tribal lands and “bisecting and isolating sections of prime farmland and farmlands of state significance.”

Another major hurdle: CSX requires trains going 125 mph to operate 30 feet from freight track.

The total project cost for high-speed rail, in 2017 dollars, was $15.7 billion, more than double the cost of the nearest alternative.

Alternative 125, which was projected to boost ridership to some 4.3 million passengers and provide 19 daily roundtrips between Buffalo and Albany, received the most favorable public comments. CSX, shippers and companies relying on freight rail overwhelmingly favored no changes to the current system.

“The selection of Alternative 90B balances the preferences of these different constituencies,” the report said.

Changing the sequence

The study calls for starting the rail improvements downstate, with 10 years elapsing before work would begin west of Albany. It would take another 15 years, the study said, to complete track and other improvements in Buffalo and Niagara Falls.

But with billions of federal infrastructure dollars available this year and the next two years, the state DOT may alter the sequence of work to tap into the potential funding.

Because it took so long to complete the study, the Federal Railway Administration is requiring some of the projections from 2017 to be updated. The DOT is using a $500,000 federal grant to update the study’s Service Development Plan, which also provided the timeline for proposed improvements across the entire state, project by project.

That has contributed to the idea in DOT, Ho said, of seeking money for whatever projects are ready to go, regardless of the geographical sequence the report suggested.

“That put us in a really good place to figure out what we think that universe of rail projects looks like,” Ho said.

Doing projects across the state, rather than in order, would be a welcome and significant development, Becker said.

“I am very encouraged that they are looking at it in a more pragmatic matter,” he said, “as opposed to starting at New York City and ending up in Western New York.”

Not ‘in the queue’

A former planner for the City of Niagara Falls isn’t pleased with the state’s readiness.

DOT dropped the ball by not being better prepared to take advantage of the spigot of money now flowing from the federal government, said Thomas DeSantis, who led the planning for the Niagara Falls Station and is a board member of Citizens For Regional Transportation.

The transportation department should have identified a dozen or more projects in different locations years ago, he said, and had them “in the queue, ready to go.”

“It would have provided hope for the general public that this isn’t some kind of crazy pipe dream that will never get implemented because the timelines are too long, the budgets are too big and the political will may not be there,” DeSantis said.

He would like to see DOT work with regional metropolitan planning agencies on rail projects they want to advance.

“I’m disgusted because a lot of work went into this, starting 20 years ago,” DeSantis said. “There was an environmental impact statement undertaken by the state to implement the plan at great cost, but never completed for 12 years. Are we expected to wait another 15 years to start projects west of Albany?

“It’s time to do it,” he said. “The plan is there and the money can be there, so we need to actually start now.”

Improved train service – but not high-speed rail – could be in New York's future (4)

Ridership levels up

Train ridership across upstate New York has rebounded since the pandemic.

Empire Service ridership was 72,600 more from October 2023 to April 2024 than over the same period from 2018 to 2019, prior to the spread of Covid-19.

“While we are looking forward to future improvements,” Becker said, “we shouldn’t overlook the fact that ridership continues to grow.”

Mark Sommer covers culture, preservation, the waterfront, transportation, nonprofits and more. He’s a former arts editor at The News.

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