High Speed Rail & Upstate NY: The Key Points No One Is Talking About

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Recently, Governor Andrew Cuomo surprised New York State with an announcement that he will revisit the possibility of building a high-speed rail line that would connect Upstate Cities with New York City downstate. Those who have lived here for some time are well aware that this is far from the first time leaders have flirted with the idea of fast trains crossing the Empire State in an effort to connect midsized city economies and the largest city in our country.

Let’s look at the facts we “know.” First off, let’s stop calling this “high speed rail.” The a feasibility studies that have been conducted looked at improving the average train speed along this route from approximately 55mph to 62mph (costing an estimated $6 billion) or 77mph (costing closer to $15 billion). The cheaper option would shave the 8.4 hour trip from Buffalo to NYC by almost an hour, while the more expensive option would quicken the trip by approximately two and a half hours. Not exactly game changers, especially when you consider that even the more expensive option would get me from my home city of Rochester to the state capital Albany a few minutes quicker than if I drove a car. The less expensive option would shave about half an hour. The “bang for the buck” improvement here doesn’t seem worth the massive expenditure, especially for a state that is already dealing with a $6 billion deficit. Except that when you ask current riders, former riders and potential riders, they will all tell you that speed isn’t currently the problem with Amtrak’s service across New York State. More on that in a moment.

If you’re someone who sees the daunting price tag for slightly-higher-speed rail in New York State, believing there is no way the state can receive a return on its investment, I respect that. I really do. I myself, a huge fan of the potential for quality regional transit to change economies, find it hard to see those numbers as anything other than prohibitive. But let’s look at the factors that are so often overlooked with regard to this specific proposal, clearing the air for a more realistic “big picture.”

Amtrak Has An Abysmal On-Time Rate

Amtrak’s 50-60mph average speed across Upstate New York is the ON-TIME speed. But the three major trains crossing the state, The Empire Service, The Maple Leaf and The Lake Shore Limited have on-time rates of 70%, 64% and a dreadful 41% respectfully (within 15 minutes of scheduled arrival). Furthermore, these delays are often hours rather than minutes, and most are due to excessive freight traffic on the tracks, which are owned by host railroad CSX. That means that approximately 1 out of every 3 Amtrak rides in the state are met with delays beyond 15 minutes. If you take a round trip, you are extremely likely to experience a significant delay due to freight traffic. For me personally, here were my Amtrak trips last year…

Rochester to Utica: 47 minutes late

Utica to Rochester: On Time

Utica to Rochester: On Time

Rochester to Albany: 31 minutes late

Albany to Rochester: 21 minutes late

Rochester to Utica: 2 hour 17 minutes late

Utica to Rochester: On Time

Utica to Rochester: On Time

Rochester to Utica: 1 hour 7 mintes minutes late

Utica to Rochester: 6 HOURS AND 3 MINUTES LATE

Rochester to Rome: On Time

Rome to Rochester: On Time

Rome to Rochester: 21 minutes late

Rochester to Schenectady: 32 minutes late

Schenectady to Rochester: On Time

Buffalo to Rochester: On Time

Rochester to NYC: 3 hours and 26 minutes late

NYC to Rochester: On Time

Rochester to Syracuse: On Time

Syracuse to Rochester: On Time

Nearly half of my 2019 trips experienced delays. The two massive delays of 3-plus and 6-plus hours were terrible, but in fairness, they were due to mechanical issues, not freight traffic. They would likely be, however, “Never Again” trips for most people… they almost were for even this staunch rail enthusiast. But let’s not ignore the other 7 delays, three of which were 47 minutes to 137 minutes long, all caused by freight traffic. Also of note, most of these weren’t exactly Buffalo to New York City trips… instead they were trips of less than 3 scheduled hours. In the end, 1 out of every 4 trips were delayed by 45 minutes or more and one out of every 5 trips were delayed an hour or more. Fifteen percent of my trips were what I call “Never Again” Amtrak rides, or the sort of ridiculous delays that cause people to choose other travel methods in the future.

My point is simply that we’ve made this a discussion about speed rather than consistency and reliability, which are the real issues that affect Amtrak’s current ridership. The current 50-60mph average speeds often work out to be 35-45mph when freight traffic delays are present… which is often. Building dedicated track would eliminate these constant delays, allowing average speed and on time rates to skyrocket, and most importantly, give passengers a previously unknown luxury… the ability to count on arriving at their destination at the expected time. This would not only improve the general perception of Amtrak service in the eyes of casual riders, it would make Amtrak a legitimate business option for riders across the state.

It’s Not Just About NYC…

While speedy and consistent train service to New York City is important, it’s also important to note that riders use Amtrak to travel to many other communities across the state. When I board in Rochester for example, typically about half of the passengers going East are headed for The Big Apple. But the other half are folks traveling for business, students going to and from college, and riders seeing friends and family, all across Upstate New York. Having consistent, reliable connectivity throughout our state and our region will not simply facilitate New York City tourism, it will allow for an evolving Upstate and Western New York urban landscape to grow, diversify and ultimately strengthen.

Young People Want To Be Driven

The average age that young people attain a drivers license is increasing. More and more young Americans are demanding access to more transportation options, and this is figuring into where they choose to live. Furthermore, major employers that are looking to grow and expand are catching on to this changing dynamic and are choosing to locate in areas where transit is a priority as a result.

While the car isn’t going away anytime soon, the future does increasingly look more transit-centric. Young people’s desire to use their smart phones, play games and be productive on the go are increasingly viewing driving as the one time they can’t connect to their electronic devices. Riding Amtrak allows mobility, connectivity and productivity while traveling to a destination.

The Case Of Hudson, New York

Few places in New York State have benefitted from reliable train service like the town of Hudson, New York, population 6,200. Despite its small size, this community on the Hudson River just south of the state capital of Albany touts the third-highest ridership in the state. Hudson’s population is 3% of Rochester’s, yet their annual Amtrak ridership is 67% higher than The Flower City. If Rochester’s ridership per resident was the same as Hudson’s, we would have an annual Amtrak ridership of 7 million!

Hudson, New York

This is a bit deceiving based on the fact that most of Hudson’s arriving and departing passengers are tourists who are visiting the quiet town full of shops, restaurants, galleries and antique shops from New York City. Cities like Rochester, Syracuse and Buffalo don’t have the same type of tourist draw. But there’s a reason for this, and that reason is pertinent.

Hudson business owners will tell you that Amtrak provides a vital vein of connectivity between NYC and a town that has become a sort of overflow of artists and business owners who have been priced out of Manhattan and Brooklyn’s ever gentrifying midst. The reliable and more frequent service, unfettered by the freight train delays along this section of track, has allowed this otherwise sleepy town to grow into charming little center of artistic expression and economic growth. It is a true testament to what reliable train services can do for a city or town, even one as small as Hudson.

Amtrak stops at Hudson station

Hudson is just one example of a community that has been reborn from a growing number of people who are being priced out of New York City and are looking to invest further Upstate. I see it in so many of the communities I visit, the first trickle of private business owners and entrepreneurs who are looking to create a little bit of what Brooklyn used to be in small Upstate cities and towns. These are folks who are still looking for practical connectivity to the Big City, but want more for their investment and a slower pace of life. This is everything that Upstate New York offers, and connecting our region to New York City signals a commitment to these potential investors that their continued interest in Upstate is welcome.

At Some Point We Have To Make The Leap

The conversation around Climate Change is stronger than ever, as constant reports of a warming Earth and the consequences that follow are beginning to work their way into our everyday lives. Yet the automobile is still, by far and away, the preferred mode of transportation in the United States, as well as the #1 Co2 polluter. It is becoming clear that drastic measures need to be taken to curb the proliferation of greenhouse gases emitted by cars and trucks.

At some point, as difficult as it may be to stomach financially, our municipalities, states and countries need to start getting aggressive with regard to capping greenhouse gas emissions, while providing more efficient, sustainable alternatives. Investing in a more sustainable mode of transportation in New York State, like effective rail service, would do just this, setting the tone for the rest of the country to consider more environmentally sensitive travel.

Upstate New York Needs This

Some believe that the neglected bones of Upstate New York, which is losing population, cannot sustain a project like high(er) speed rail. Some believe that a collection of upstate urban cores, most of which have lost 40% or more of their population in the last several decades, can’t possibly be positively effected by an expensive train.

Personally, I believe it can. We can continue to do what we’ve always done and expect different results (the definition of insanity), or we can create a new artery of potential growth by giving residents and visitors an efficient, effective and reliable alternative to white-knuckling it across I-90. We can welcome outside investment to a Connected New York, signaling that this state is tilling the soil for economic growth. We can tell our young people that we are investing in their desire to live in an area where public transit is prioritized. Finally, we can continue to thrash and mock our Upstate New York cities, or we can begin to reconnect them with new energy that has the power to unite us in a new direction and a thriving future for this region with so many untapped resources.

We should be skeptical and critical of the high speed rail conversation… but it is a conversation we should be very much open to having. Rail has the power to elicit the sort of economic investment we have been desperate for… let’s all take a deep breath and start to imagine a connected future for Upstate New York.