on a Train
high-speed rail in New York state be put on the fast track,
or set out on a siding while other states pass us by?
Friday, the U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood
and Congresswoman Louise Slaughter (D-Perinton) visited
Amtrak’s rail passenger station in Rochester. The two held
a press conference to talk about high-speed rail in New
York state. As captured by the camera of Buffalo’s WIVB-TV,
the transportation secretary said: “We’re at the starting
gate here. This is the beginning. We’re launching high-speed
intercity rail in America, and New York is in the ball game.”
Slaughter ad ded, “we don’t have the figures, but it’s absolutely
going to happen.”
The Rochester station is a classic “Amshak,” a nondescript
building (with barebones amenities) built on part of the
site of a much grander, architecturally significant New
York Central Railroad station that was torn down in 1965
(for a parking lot). For decades, Amshaks like this have
come to symbolize intercity passenger rail’s position as
the unwanted stepchild of the American transportation system.
The appearance of the transportation secretary signals,
however, the sea change in transportation policy wrought
by the Obama administration. Both President Barack Obama,
who hails from that supreme railroad town, Chicago, and
Vice President Joe Biden, a decades-long Amtrak passenger
on the Northeast Corridor between Washington, D.C., and
his Delaware home, are strong supporters of train service.
But even the most avid supporters of high-speed rail were
shocked when $8 billion of the stimulus bill—aka the American
Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009—were set aside specifically
for high-speed rail projects.
The $8 billion was awarded to 20 states based on competitive
bids, and some states did very well. California was awarded
more than $2 billion. Illinois and Florida are each set
to receive more than $1 billion. Wisconsin will get $822
million; Washington will get $590 million; North Carolina
will get $545 million; and Ohio will get $400 million. New
York placed eighth behind these states, and is slated to
get $151 million.
California’s funding will serve as a down payment on a statewide
system; according to ChinaDaily.com (April 9), Gov. Arnold
Schwarzenegger has signed a “preliminary cooperation agreement”
with China to help build the system and hopes to travel
to Beijing later this year to consult with rail ministry
officials. Illinois will upgrade service between Chicago
and St. Louis; Florida will be able to build 84 miles of
track for high-speed service between Tampa and Orlando.
Wisconsin will restore service between Milwaukee and Madison.
Washington will be able to significantly upgrade the existing
service from Seattle to Portland, Ore., and North Carolina
will upgrade the line from Raleigh to Charlotte. Ohio will
be able to restore, after four decades, regional service
between Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton and Cincinnati.
And New York? The most significant portion of the $151 million
New York will receive—around $90 million—will be used to
build a second track between Albany and Schenectady.
Why did New York, which has a more advanced passenger rail
system than many of the states that got bigger awards, miss
B. Becker is the president of the Empire State Passengers
Association, a nonprofit group that lobbies for improved
passenger rail service in New York. Reached by phone at
his suburban Buffalo office, Becker is asked about the longtime
effort to get some entity—the state or the federal government—to
fund construction of that second track between Albany and
He explains that it has been a 25-year campaign, adding,
“at least that project is proceeding at this point, and
that is the number one bottleneck on the Empire Corridor.
It’s a key improvement that will benefit all Amtrak passengers
in the state.”
Despite the fact that the CSX freight mainline now bypasses
the two cities, CSX maintains an active yard for tank cars
off Albany’s Watervliet Avenue—you can easily see it from
I-90—and runs local freight service on the line, which it
shares with Amtrak. And Amtrak often has delays caused by
its own services coming into conflict.
Asked about the ARRA grant, Becker says, “While the state
had applied for more, we’re very encouraged that we received
the money we got.”
were certainly other projects that were not funded; I know
that New York State DOT’s intent is to reapply for money
going forward,” he says. “There is another $2.5 billion
in grant money in the current year federal budget that the
state will be applying for.”
New York does have a long-term passenger rail plan. In fact,
it’s had a succession of plans. In November 1993, then-Gov.
Mario Cuomo announced a just-shy-of-$1 billion, five-year
plan to upgrade service on the Empire Corridor (New York-Albany-Buffalo)
and Adirondack route (Albany-Saratoga Springs-Montreal).
It didn’t happen, because Cuomo was defeated by George Pataki
in 1994. The Pataki administration went into partnership
with Amtrak to refurbish a set of French-built Turboliner
trains to improve service between New York and Albany; the
Turboliners had numerous mechanical problems and were eventually
The administration of Gov. David Paterson unveiled their
plan a year ago.
long-term goal [of the latest plan],” Becker says, “is to
add a third dedicated higher-speed passenger track from
west of the Capital Region, at the spot where the current
passenger mainline connects with the CSX freight main line
west of Schenectady and across New York state.”
Historical note: Once upon a time in the mid-20th century,
the New York Central Railroad had a four-track mainline
from Castleton to Ohio.
Becker explains: “Roughly $50 million of the $151 million
is for preliminary engineering and design, and for environmental
approvals for an initial 11 miles of what will be that third
track, between Rochester and Batavia. That will be the first
link” in the statewide expansion.
unrealistic,” Becker says, “to think that New York state
was going to receive the money to build this whole third
track across the state, and it would certainly be done in
incremental steps. And the 11 miles west of Rochester will
be that first step.”
In the stimulus grant, $3 million is specifically targeted
for improvements to the Adirondack service.
$3 million,” Becker says, “is for the construction of roughly
two miles of new track in the Ballston Spa area. There’s
a bottleneck there . . . that affects both the Adirondack
and the Ethan Allen Express [which serves Rutland, Vt.].”
the funding currently,” Becker says, “is to address those
bottleneck situations. While certainly we’re a long way
away from true high-speed rail in New York state, these
are all foundation steps that must be done.”
reason that Illinois and Wisconsin did so well on the projects
that they requested money for is that they had well-developed
plans ready to go. They also had a long-term commitment
to passenger trains. So they were able to put together excellent
applications for the funds,” says Richard Harnish, executive
director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, reached
by phone in his Chicago office.
Harnish makes an interesting point that is a key to understanding
the grants in the Obama stimulus plan: Most of what’s being
funded isn’t true high-speed rail.
be modernizing the Amtrak service,” Harnish says.
As it says in the U.S. government report on the rail grants,
the $1 billion Illinois will receive will fund “improvements
to this corridor [that] will . . . allow passenger rail
service from Chicago to St. Louis to operate at speeds of
up to 110 miles per hour.” This will cut the travel time
between the two cities from 5.5 hours to 4 hours.
Eventually, however, there are discussions about building
a true high-speed rail service; Illinois just set up a high-speed
Harnish is an advocate of bullet trains.
thinking is,” Harnish says, “that the goal should be a two-hour
trip between Chicago and St. Louis.” And for this, “there’s
a much easier-to-use right of way between Chicago and Champaign.”
The plans to modernize the current Chicago-Champaign-Carbondale
service were not funded. Instead, Harnish suggests that
the state use that route for a bullet train.
I were to get what I want,” Harnish says, “we’d build basically
four bullet-train routes out of Chicago.” If you “upgrade
Amtrak routes to at least 90 mph, we’d fill in some key
gaps in the system.”
What the stimulus funding does do, however, is advance the
cause of passenger rail service at every level of development.
Take Ohio for example, which is currently served by long
distance trains (Lake Shore Limited, Capitol Limited, the
Cardinal) which only serve stations in the middle of the
really impressed that the governor [of Ohio] was able to
figure out how to make that happen, and put together such
a competitive proposal in such a short period of time. I
wish all governors—and our governor [Pat Quinn] is very
good as well—had that kind of interest in all 50 states.
It would be huge.”
Some of the stimulus grants were comparatively small.
got $17 million dollars in a project that’s received very
little attention,” Harnish points out. They will be able
to make small but significant-to current-service improvements
“in three or four places along the route of the California
To Harnish, this kind of improvement should be made systemwide.
What if, he suggests, each state with Amtrak service were
given up to $20 million just to improve current services?
It would cost “under a billion dollars to go through the
entire Amtrak network and figure out how to take out five
minutes here, 10 minutes there,” Harnish says, “to make
the whole thing more reliable. And that should add easily
enough capacity to add a second round-trip [to each long-distance]
got those stations whose only service is between 11 PM and
6 AM,” Harnish says. “Every station would be served during
a reasonable hour.”
The other big problem with passenger rail service, Harnish
says, is Amtrak’s rolling stock—its aging passenger cars.
rode a sleeper train between Shanghai and Beijing that was
constructed within the last year,” Harnish says. “And [this
sleeper train] is fully capable of 150 mph, if not more.
Why can’t we have that here?”
That’s the multimillion dollar question.
next opportunity for service expansion in New York state,”
ESPA’s Bruce Becker says, “would probably be focused on
the proposal to have a new Amtrak or intercity line between
New York and Scranton, Penn., and on to Binghamton.”
This is dependent on the restoration of an abandoned route
in northern New Jersey, and serious track upgrades in Pennsylvania.
It will happen eventually—emphasis on eventually.
U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer has called for a study of extending
this service into New York.
and when the service gets to Binghamton, then the opportunity
to run either west to Elmira and Corning and on, or north
from Binghamton toward Syracuse would be much more likely,”
getting service to Scranton and Binghamton is considerably
in the future,” he adds.
That’s why the Empire Corridor is the only immediate option
for improving passenger rail service in New York. And that’s
why it’s so disappointing that New York’s grant proposal
for stimulus money wasn’t more competitive. Maybe Congresswoman
Slaughter really does know something, and more money will
New York will need it. When Amtrak was created in 1970,
the Empire Corridor was included as a fully federally funded
part of the system. It still is—but not for much longer.
federal law,” Becker explains, “in the shorter-distance
corridors, the states will be required to subsidize or provide
operating support. That day is coming. The current thought
process is that [New York will have to start partially paying
for the service] in the federal 2012 year.”
This is not the best timing, in terms of New York’s budget
problems. But nothing is set in stone yet.
the mandate is there, the overall guidance on how this is
going to happen is still being formulated,” Becker says.
The Paterson administration is committed to passenger rail
had discussions with the current administration, both at
the DOT and with folks at the governor’s office,” Becker
says, “and they are very much aware that this need is coming.
They say that they support the Empire Corridor, and realize
that the state will have to provide some level of operating
support going forward.”
The effect of the Obama administration support for passenger
rail has been felt in the current state budget. Last year,
the Adirondack service to Montreal was on the chopping block.
Not this year.
As Becker points out, “the whole country has changed in
the last 15 months.”
been told directly that the intent is to not leave money
on the table if at all possible,” Becker says. “We’re pleased
by that direction.”
So high-speed—or higher-speed—passenger rail service is
coming to New York state. Eventually. It just might take
a while to get here.