Monday, July 7, 2008

2008 New York State Rail Plan Vol. 3

"To that love of books and respect for learning traditional in Rochester since the earliest times, Mortimer F. Reynolds and his family added a desire that all citizens might aid their work and enrich their leisure by good reading. This ideal once based on private benefaction has become a public necessity."

I'm back today, fully rested and generally detoxified, on my day off (more on that later) in the 2nd home of the Reynolds Reference Library, the rear of the RPL's Rundel building. The preceeding passage is one of two carved ornately into the wood in this fabulous building evocative of the train station on Central Avenue that I'll never get to see.

It is certainly high time that I enriched my leisure and reported on that topic of inter-city passenger rail. Unfortunately I will have to skip Chapter 4 of the rail report, a fascinating chapter on freight with full page maps diagramming useful things such as rail taxable status, maximum railcar clearances, and maximum railcar weights. I'm simply getting close to the public comment deadline and I feel that the largest component of interest for myself and other urbanists is the primary practical option for contracted downtown to downtown travel going forward.

Let's jump right in to the meat of Chapter 5. The latest ridership numbers for the period beginning in September of 2007 and ending in May of 2008 show a 10.7 percent increase in nationwide ridership. This uptick reflects the realities of the new economy after decades of decreased ridership on private carriers as well as a consolidated Amtrak. New York has been unique since 1978, state subsidizing an additional non-core route from Albany to Montreal, the Adirondack. This to me at least showed a token interest in not allowing complete collapse of the rail mode.

There are four main routes marketed upstate, the aforementioned Adirondack, the long haul Lake Shore Limited (New York/Boston to Chicago), the Maple Leaf (to Toronto), and Empire Service. These routes serve 25 upstate stations of various size and ridership. In addition, seven downstate stations are served by these routes (via 13 round trip trains) on the stretch between New York's Penn Station and the Albany-Rensselaer 'linchpin of upstate' station. Of those thirteen daily trains to and from Albany, only four make their way to Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse (2 daily Empire Service, 1 Maple Leaf, and 1 Lake Shore Limited).

Let's discuss, for a minute, the fare structure and travel times associated with rail travel versus air. A table on Page 84 (94 on the PDF) compares airport-to-airport travel time with its rail counterpart. For instance, Albany to New York is listed as 2.5 hours by rail and 1 hour by air, yet this leaves out some very important considerations. First of all, recommended arrival time prior to an air trip adds anywhere from an extra hour to two extra hours onto travel time. If one lands at JFK or any city's airport for that matter, acquiring luggage and ground transportation to the central business district can also add upwards of an hour to the travel time. The comparison of Buffalo to New York City (7.3 vs. 1.5) may point up the efficiencies of flying at least until one looks at fare structure. Rail fares as listed on Amtrak's website are no strings attached. No 9/11 fees, no additional taxes to turn your $99 'steal' into a $130 one-way plane ticket. In addition, discounts are given to AAA members as well as through seasonal promotional codes.

Some stations are owned by Amtrak while others by regional transportation authorities such as Syracuse's intermodal facility. Served by Amtrak, Greyhound, Trailways, and Centro, transfer between modes is greatly simplified. The Rensselaer Rail Station serving the Capital Region is the 9th busiest rail station in the United States. It is also proof that a train station built post-1940 could in fact have aesthetic value, subliminally announce arrival to a place, and not be a general cubic pile of shit compared to the classic architecture it likely replaced. It is rail investments like this (check out the portfolio page of the builder) that give me hope for a future rail station suitable to Rochester's stature and formerly intense urbanism at its front door.

The harshest reality facing United States passenger rail is the little fact that the majority of service runs on track owned by freight railroads. CSX controls the train dispatching all the way from Niagara Falls to Poughkeepsie and is thus responsible for almost all train movement upstate. Canadian Pacific and the Niagara Falls Bridge Commissions are other major resource holders. Taking these regulatory obstacles into account along with the fact that upstate ridership is up 15% in the last five years (chart) with Empire Service west of Albany up 21.7% over the same time period and we see why declining on-time performance is becoming a more pressing issue.

On time tolerances in this part of the Empire corridor are listed as 25 minutes. This doesn't bode well for the perception of rail travel when the best route, Empire Service, clocks in at 61.7% OTP, down 19% over the last five years. The Maple Leaf to Toronto is 'on time' only 1/3 of the time while the Lake Shore Limited appears to have not been on time once in fiscal year 2007. 76% of these delays are associated with the host railroads (freight interference, speed restrictions, construction). And yet, ridership increases largely out of finance/need. Does anything else need to be said about the imperative necessity of laying more parallel track?

According to section 5.6, only 57 passenger coaches are allotted by the national Amtrak pool to serve Empire Corridor operations in the state. As a result of increasing ridership, this is inadequate to grow the level of service. Food service cars are attached to the Albany-NYC routes despite no food service on that short route for the sole purpose of providing business class seating.

At this point I'd strongly recommend you read sections 5.9 Intercity Passenger Rail Issues and Needs in New York State, as well as 5.11 National Issues & Implications for New York State in their entirety. They reiterate equipment and station needs in greater detail as well as touch on the most important variable, federal funding.

As I wrap it up, I'd just like to restate how pleasant my May 18 trip to Syracuse on the Lake Shore Limited was. There are advantages over the airlines and personal transportation on price, legroom, reclinability, seat width, power outlets, and low ambient noise. My dream for system involves looking at the state rail map and envisioning connections that activate midsize cities along all major corridors. I envision the ability to travel between Auburn and Batavia by train for New York-Penn League baseball games. I envision a Rochester to Geneva to Watkins Glen or Ithaca route to continue the tradition of wine growing, tasting, and purchasing. I envision the public markets of Rochester and Syracuse continuing to thrive due to their position on rail lines that serve the quasi-local farming communities. And most importantly, I envision frequent enough service between Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo, Hamilton, and Toronto to serve the needs of all business travelers along Lake Ontario as our region returns to prominence coinciding with the unsustainability of the Sun Belt. Hopefully we are able to sell our Webster townhouse in short order after moving to our city townhouse, facilitating a celebratory train trip (with local public transit connections of course).

1 comment:

CWhittaker said...

While having a train connect Scranton to Rochester via Binghamton and Ithaca would be great, thee reality is that topography makes the possibility a difficult proposition. Even in the heyday of trains, for any trains to get into Ithaca, several switchbacks had to be employed to get in and out of town. or the station would be at Cornell for some lines. Even now, the train that runs through town to Milliken (electrical station) has to go through Sayre and Waverly.