Niagara Gazette

Local News

April 25, 2010

Buffalo-Niagara area awaits high-speed rail line

NIAGARA FALLS — A conductor walking through the sparkling new train station in the city’s North End suddenly stops to make an announcement that people have waited for years to hear.

“All passengers for the 21st Century Limited to New York City will now board at Gate 1!”

It’s 2030 — maybe a little later — and the high-speed Amtrak train service carries hundreds of passengers daily on the six trains departing the Cataract City for Penn Station in New York.

Two of the sleek cars quickly fill with commuters bound for downtown Buffalo and Rochester.

Other stops include Syracuse, Utica and Albany before the final leg into mid-Manhattan.

For many years, the trip took more than eight hours. With the  vastly improved rail system and the latest line in locomotives, travel time is less than five hours.

Today is another story: The Falls to Albany train can still take upwards of six hours.

Hopes for the high-speed service were revived when Gov. David Paterson released the 2009 New York State Rail Plan, the first comprehensive update of this state’s rail strategy in 22 years.

The New York plan is focused on a $9.3 billion program dedicated for intercity rail. Those funds authorized under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act create the potential for  doubling the number of intercity passengers along three major corridors in the state, including Niagara Falls-to-Albany.

The scramble for the funding has not been easy:

n New York state was granted only $151 million for seven projects identified as part of its application process. (At the same time, $2.3 billion was allocated to California and $1.25 billion to Florida.) One federal official noted that if it hadn’t been for Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-Fairport, among others, New York would have received even less.

n For the $8 billion that President Obama provided for high speed rail in his stimulus plan, there were 259 applications from 37 states for projects that would cost $57 billion.

Under the ambitious plan, a third track — at present there are two sets of tracks — would be dedicated for high speed, with the goal of reducing the Falls-to-Albany run by a couple of hours.

“We’re operating our (high speed) trains even now in excess of 100 miles per hour in three states in the Northeast,” said Joseph H. Boardman, president and chief executive officer of Amtrak, the nation’s rail passenger corporation, during a meeting last month of the Empire State Passengers Association in Schenectady.

“We’re underfunded as we have been for years,” he said, noting the Acela Express service that started in December 2000 could be operating now at 240 miles per hour, if it had been properly funded in the first place.

Niagara Falls — the No. 2 tourist attraction in the state after New York City — has a rich history in the railroad passenger train business. In earlier days, the storied New York Central fleet bearing such names as The Twentieth Century Limited, Empire State Express and the Lake Shore Limited criss-crossed New York around the clock, between New York City and Chicago as well as much of the Midwest.

Don Hannon, director of Integrated Modal Services, state Department of Transportation-Albany, said at the time Obama called for a concerted effort to develop high-speed rail, New York was ideally positioned with its rail plan already prepared by Amtrak, CSX, and other railroads that provided an in-depth look at their needs over the next 20 years.

“We can have 150 or 200 mph service in New York but it’s going to take 20 years,” Hannon predicted. In addition, he said it could cost upwards of $30 billion.

“The projects we submitted met the criteria of the Federal Railroad Administration,” Hannon said. Safety is always the No. 1 concern, he added, citing grade crossing improvements as a major component of that overall program.

As a result of the applications, seven projects in New York state have been identified as qualifying for the ARRA funding.

They include improvements for the stations at Buffalo-Depew and at Rochester; a new third track west of Rochester; a second main track between Albany and Schenectady; grade crossing improvements in the Hudson Valley and planning for the entire Empire Corridor. Neither Niagara Falls nor any of its rail operations are specifically listed among the projects.

 Bruce Becker, president of the Empire State Passengers Association, however, says Niagara Falls is definitely in line to benefit from the $58.3 million earmarked for the improvements between Buffalo and this city.

 That includes: Grade crossing upgrades, some $32 million for signal improvements on the Niagara section, $22 million for track, bridge and signal work for the proposed North End station, $1 million for a new double-track in the Falls and $2.5 million for a new maintenance facility here.

Mayor Paul Dyster has been a staunch supporter for the new train station from the day he took office. He is excited about the plan for combining the new station with the Underground Railroad Interpretive Center in the converted landmark Customs House on Whirlpool Street.

“It seems like we waited forever to start work on the new station,” Dyster said during a recent talk.

DOT officials concede that the rail service from Schenectady to Niagara Falls is now far from impressive.

A major reason: CSX operating at least 50 freight trains per day in that 320-mile corridor. More than half the delays to the passenger train service are due to freight train interference and speed restrictions.

Despite the delays, Amtrak has improved its on-time performance from 41 percent in 2008 to 64 percent in 2009.

 “The average Buffalo-to-Albany run is five hours, 44 minutes, and with 110 mph-tracks and using current equipment, we can shave off that time to just under four hours,” Hannon said.

Amtrak officials remain confident that a third track dedicated to passenger trains would dramatically increase the level of service west of Albany to Buffalo-Niagara.

Under that expansion, Amtrak would increase its present eight trains per day to 14 by 2030, the same level of service now offered between Albany and New York City.

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