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Waiting on a Train

Will 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?

By Shawn Stone

Last 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.”

“Today,” 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 (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 out?

Bruce 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 Schenectady.

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.”

“There 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 mothballed.

The administration of Gov. David Paterson unveiled their plan a year ago.

“The 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.

“It’s 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.

“The $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.].”

“All 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.”

‘The 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.

“They’ll 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 rail commission.

Harnish is an advocate of bullet trains.

“The 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.

“If 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 night.

“I’m 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.

“Iowa 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 Zephyr.”

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] route.”

“You’ve 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.

“I 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.

‘The 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.

“If 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,” Becker says.

“But 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 be forthcoming.

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.

“By 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.

“While 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 service, however.

“I’ve 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.”

“I’ve 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.

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