In two and a half years of The Urban Phoenix, I’ve traveled across New York State more times than I can count. When I do, my preferred mode of travel is Amtrak. This might be puzzling to some, as frequent delays (that last hours, not minutes) and generally longer trip times (when compared to driving) drive so many potential travelers away.
I ride for many reasons, including comfort and ease of use. I can get to the station five minutes before the train arrives and hop on without any thought of security or people rummaging through my belongings. Once on the train, the seats are larger than any other form of mass transit, and I can get up and walk to the cafe car for food, drinks or just to hang out. Most importantly, I can be productive while traveling on Amtrak. I can write, edit photos or just answer emails… none of which I can do while driving down the thruway.
And one more positive? With regard to cities like Buffalo, Rochester, Utica, Schenectady and NYC, the train arrives smack in the middle of downtown. It’s easy for me to disembark and walk to wherever I need to go in these cities. Several other stations, the likes of Syracuse, Rome and Albany are just a stone’s throw away from their urban centers.
At it’s best, Amtrak is an easy, cost effective and efficient way to travel to cities across New York State, from Niagara Falls to New York City. At it’s worst, delays from freight train traffic, track maintenance and equipment malfunctions often turn 4 hour trips into 6 hour nightmares.
Riders simply never know what they’re in for when they board. Nearly everyone I’ve spoken to has a horror story or two associated with an Amtrak experience, usually centered around a delay of ungodly proportions. It’s this very real perception that continues to haunt the US’s only regional rail provider, and it’s one that cannot be overcome without significant changes to their operation.
And those changes have to come now. This week, Uber and Lyft were finally cleared to operate in Upstate New York, giving rail riders a new and convenient connective option when reaching their destination. Furthermore, bike share programs have already been implemented in New York City, Buffalo, and Rome, with programs coming in Rochester, Schenectady and other metros served by Amtrak, allowing riders a slightly more “human powered” choice to move about after disembarking from the train.
Train stations are also receiving a face-lift across the state, including new or upgraded facilities in Rochester, Buffalo, Schenectady and New York City. These upgrades enhance the passenger rail experience and in some cases will improve train times by adding platforms that are flush with the train coach doors. This allows passengers to walk right onto the train car without the big “step-up” that can take time and effort while boarding.
Add this to the growing data showing that millennials may be souring to the age-old right of passage that is the automobile, in favor of greater local and regional mass transit options, and there simply could not be a greater recipe for Amtrak’s success in New York.
None of these new amenities, however, will solve Amtrak’s biggest hurdle… delays. That may, unfortunately, be an irreconcilable issue, one that has already been debated for decades. Amtrak does not own its track in Upstate New York, and thus is subject to the schedules of CSX, the freight rail giant who’s tracks they occupy. Funding for any kind of infrastructure upgrade is highly unlikely, as money for anything other than our crumbling road and highway system is currently in jeopardy with the new budget looming. Amtrak, it seems, is stuck in the middle with few options other than to tell passengers to “be patient.”
But patience has its limits. Upstate New York has never been more ripe for a fast and efficient rail system that connects our major cities, as well as regional destinations like Boston, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Cleveland and Chicago. This connective tissue could give our state an enormous boost, giving riders for business and pleasure the opportunity to travel conveniently and swiftly, arriving at the intended destination on time and ready for action.
Local and state lawmakers are touting the aforementioned upgrades as boosters for the local economy and tourism, but with Amtrak’s unpredictable schedules, they continue to simply cater predominantly to college students and those who can’t afford to fly. Until Amtrak’s never-ending delays are solved, the popularity of rail travel across New York as well as our nation will continue to plummet. I personally love to travel by rail and the thought of this is beyond disheartening. My hope for what rail travel could be is so far from what it currently is here in New York. Perhaps with time and changing attitudes regarding how we move about our cities, our state and our region, this dynamic will change. For now, like always, we are forced to simply “be patient.”