New York HSR Floats Ahead

Evoking a comparison with the Erie Canal, which connected the Hudson River to Lake Erie and the St. Lawrence River and made the rampant development of New York City possible, the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle reports that New York’s lawmakers are considering whether to move forward on the high-speed rail project for the state. The line has been under consideration for years, and in 2005 was studied by the State Senate under the leadership of Republican Joseph Bruno.

The Albany Business Review reports that U.S. House Representative Louise Slaughter (D-NY) has pushed the New York Upstate caucus in Congress – with 11 members – to advocate on behalf of high-speed rail in the state. This came after a meeting with Representative James Oberstar (D-MN), who is the chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and who has been a notable proponent of high-speed rail across the nation. He’s currently involved in a fight over how to expand the amount of money for transit and rail in the proposed stimulus bill. Ms. Slaughter, who represents far west New York, suggests that the line would promote economic development. This seems a worthy cause considering the problems faced by the large, formerly industrial cities in the west side of the state.

The principal route under consideration is the Empire Corridor, which extends north from New York City to Albany, before turning west and passing through Utica, Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo. Lines east from Albany to Boston, north from Albany to Montréal, and west from Buffalo to Niagara and Toronto would be the obvious future extensions. New York State has a notable advantage in that all of its major cities are along this single corridor of roughly 425 miles, almost exactly the same distance as the initial line being proposed from San Francisco to Los Angeles by the California High-Speed Rail Authority. Using the same 220 mph trains as California will, New Yorkers could travel between New York City and Buffalo in 2h40, compared to 7h40 today. This would be a spectacular improvement, and even without corresponding improvements in Canadian track, it would reduce the journey time between New York and Toronto to 7h20 from 12h20 today.

But a fundamental obstacle remains: financing. New York State is running a major deficit because of the budget crisis, and there’s yet to be a federal government decision to find the funds to finance high-speed rail in the U.S. Second, there’s the problem of vision. The Democrat and Chronicle article linked above mentions 90 mph as a potential intended speed, and while that would be an improvement from today’s service, it would not provide high-speed (more than 150 mph) service. Even the State Senate report – which promised no financing whatsoever – suggested only slight speed improvements to the line, with vague suggestions for maglev or other high-speed technologies by 2025, which might as well mean never.

In the meantime, New York’s Congressional members will be working with the New York State Department of Transportation and Amtrak to evaluate how to proceed with the development of this line. If the state gets its act together, it may well be able to snatch some money away from federal pocketbook over the next several years.

But we have a problem in the United States. We’re supposed to be the country that can do anything, but in terms of high-speed rail, we’re constantly limited by our timidity, with an important exception in California’s project. In Europe, trains moving at 90 mph are considered standard speed. But here our tracks are in such a miserable state that we have relentlessly lowered our expectations and even altered definitions in New York, in the Midwest, and in the South, waving away 150 mph electric trains as unrealistic fantasies and instead praising 90 mph diesel-powered trains as high-speed. That’s the fantasy.

We’ve got to wake up and start pushing for what the rest of the developed world started building a long time ago.

2 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Norman Brown

    Correct me if I’m wrong, and I’m certain you will, but don’t present structural standards pretty much prohibit real fast trains too? Sure tracks are a big key of what we are missing not only because it is old sticks right now for the most part but also because it is owned by private carriers, in this case CSX, CN-IC, NS, and CP. But our cars and locomotives are built stressing structural integrity and crash survivability by law and turning around and building fast trains that avoid accidents will take changes in the law. Change, I guess is the key word.

  • You’re not wrong. Real fast trains wouldn’t be able to travel along the existing tracks or even some of the existing corridor. What the State Senate has been proposing is an incremental update of the rails, which would not allow speeds of above 110-120 mph.

    But, a bigger investment would mean the purchase of independent right-of-way adjacent to the tracks to used alone by these fast trains. This would probably mean the entire corridor would have to be reconstructed. And that’s a big investment. But big visions can’t usually be achieved without big investments.

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