Dedicated Track, Not High Speed Rail, Is The Answer For Amtrak In New York

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If there’s one thing I love more than urbanism, it’s trains.  Today, I’m going to let you all in on a little secret about rail travel across New York State which can also be applied to the rest of the country.

Amtrak is our only nationwide passenger rail system, but with the exception of the Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington D.C., and a few other places across the country, Amtrak “rents” track on major freight railroads.  Because of this sharing of space on the freight lines, Amtrak trains are frequently delayed minutes, if not hours, wreaking havoc on passengers’ schedules and patience levels.

A recent revival of the “high speed rail” conversation across New York State has surfaced new banter about 150mph “bullet trains,” the likes of which Europe and Asia have had for decades.  While the benefits of cutting several hours off of the now 9 hour trip (not including delays) from Niagara Falls to Penn Station in New York City, the cost of such an extensive project would be staggering, and as much as I love trains, I just don’t see this becoming a reality with current infrastructure budgetary concerns.

Let’s look at this another way.  We are all wooed by the gaudy dreams of high speed trains, but when traveling for hours at a time, average speeds and on-time performance is what really matters to the average rider.  Simply building another dedicated passenger track along the right-of-way that already exists across the state (basically, a dedicated Amtrak track alongside the CSX double-track mainline) would likely alleviate most if not all of the delay issues that the passenger railroad deals with today.  Amtrak’s Genesis locomotives are already capable of speeds beyond 100mph, but are limited across most of the state by CSX’s 79mph speed limit.  A single dedicated track would allow Amtrak trains to travel at higher speeds, with few if any delays, and still use the same locomotives and coaches.  This would not only knock an hour, maybe two off the trip, but it would allow passengers to arrive at their destinations on time with an extremely high rate of reliability, particularly important for business travel at a price that would pale in comparison to what it would take to build a separate high speed rail line that would have to incorporate more bridges and tunnels due to its higher speeds.

For those situations where two Amtrak trains needed to pass each other, small sidings could be implemented every 10 miles, or trains could temporarily still use CSX trackage to pass Amtrak trains coming from the opposite direction. In either event, the the time lost would be a matter of a few minutes per trip and could be easily predicted and figured in to all trip times.

Is building a dedicated 150mph high speed rail system ideal?  Yes, but it would likely come with an unimaginable price tag.  An incremental step is simply to create one more track alongside the existing CSX mainline for 100mph, delay-free travel using existing locomotives and coaches rather than having to invest in all new equipment.

One more thing to consider is ticket price. The more extensive the infrastructure upgrade, the more ticket prices will undoubtedly rise. While Amtrak has the the potential to be a reliable option for business and leisure travel for those with means, its current demographic is dominated by those looking to travel on a budget. Creating a high speed rail corridor across the state would likely inflate prices, which may negate any gains in ridership by pricing out of the socioeconomic status of its current passengers.

As someone who has ridden Amtrak across New York nearly 100 times over the last few years, I can safely say that an expensive, shiny new rail system isn’t necessary. A simple addition to the current right-of-way would alleviate a lions share of the delays that have driven passengers to choose other travel methods. Predictable arrival times and modest increases in average speeds using existing equipment should be the goal in today’s tightening transit budget, and while not flashy, the addition of one more track could mean a tremendous reduction in travel time across New York State.

Modest gains can make a real difference, and in this case, a simple addition rather than re-writing the game plan might just be the right one.