New York Planners Zoom Ahead with HSR Plans

First link between Buffalo and Albany would not be true high-speed rail

Just as California’s high-speed rail planners have announced that the first leg of that system to be built will be between Merced and Bakersfield in the state’s Central Valley, New York State politicians are making it clear that they’re going to fight for some of Washington’s $8 billion in fast rail funds included in the stimulus.

Like in California, the state’s biggest metro area will not be included in the first section to be constructed, which will be between Albany and Buffalo, via Syracuse and Rochester. The cities would be connected by a new third track, running parallel to existing freight tracks, that would allow service for trains running between 110 and 150 mph. A trip from Rochester to Albany would take two hours after the completion of track construction, down from 4 to 5 hours today on Amtrak’s Empire, Lake Shore Limited, and Maple Leaf trains.

The project would cost roughly $4 billion, though that cost doesn’t include the likely right-of-way acquisition that will be necessary for the new track. It is unclear how much of that funding the state plans to ask from the U.S. Department of Transportation; it’s also worth pointing out that the design for this new third track is not yet completed, and stimulus funds for high-speed rail are supposed to be spent before 2012, so New York will not be able to complete this line with stimulus money alone.

New York City would later receive fast service to Albany with the support of other funds.

The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle reports that Representative Louise Slaughter, who has been pushing for an upstate line for more than a month now, has convinced Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood that her pet project makes a lot of sense. Because the criteria for the distribution of the funds nationwide has yet to be established, however, this is no guarantee that New York will receive a large amount – if any – of the $8 billion. Competition will be fierce.

What’s good about this news, even given the tenuous nature of this project, is that it demonstrates strong support in upstate New York for better rail service. If the state can find the funds either through its own tax revenue or through federal government outlays, it will be able to dramatically improve the likelihood of people choosing to take the train between upstate destinations. An investment there, too, will inevitably lead to an effort to speed up trains between New York and Albany.

Let’s not be too optimistic, however: this remains less-than-full high-speed rail and will rely on diesel locomotives, which aren’t particularly generous to the environment. An electric system between Buffalo and New York City, running at 200 mph and costing more than $40 $10 billion, is a great concept, but it’s completely out of the question at least in the next decade.

17 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Andy Lynch

    What would be the likely cost of electrifying this railway either now or in the future for 110mph travel? If you can’t get full HSR then at least electric service would allow the railway to use renewable energy sources.

  • Chris G

    I thought of that too Andy. But I believe the reason they’re not going to do that is that they feel they will have to build a new separate ROW for the real HSR when its time.

    I’m just saying that’s what I feel their excuse is.

    I for one am for the plan on theoildrum to electrify the majority of all rail lines in this country. CEO Boardman said last week he was looking to electrify Washington DC to Richmond. I line I’ve come to learn is still owned by CSX like the majority of the line from Albany to Buffalo.

  • Where does your $40 billion figure come from? If NYC-Buffalo HSR costs the same per km as the LGV Est, the total cost is going to be in the area of $11 billion.

  • Alon – you’re right, but if we’re talking CAHSR prices, it would be $40 bil.

  • BLambert

    Yonah – NY state High Speed Rail Task Force puts the figure at $8-10 billion, Buffalo/Niagara Falls – NYC, for true High Speed Rail:

    http://www.cdta.org/hsr/High%20Speed%20Rail%20Task%20Force%20Documents%20and%20Reports.htm

    Which, of course, is probably lowballing the figure, but the Empire and Keystone HSR corridors would be the HSR links between the midwest and the northeast, so should be considered, IMO, of a moderate priority.

  • Everyone,
    Thanks for the comments – you’re right about the study saying it will cost $8-10, and I corrected it. That said, as you put it BLambert, I really think that’s a lowball considering the cost of CAHSR’s estimates, which are closer to actually representing construction costs.

  • Can someone explain to me why the government has to buy the ROW from CSX? Don’t they have the right to rebuild one of the existing tracks even if they don’t own the ROW?

  • I mean, rebuild one of the previously existing tracks?

  • Steve Strauss

    The existing CSX ROW is wide enough for a third track. It was built with four tracks by the NY Central back in the 19th or early 20th century. Except for a small segment west of Albany (less than 20 miles) I believe the entire ROW is owned by CSX. NY State will have to negotiate a lease or sale of ROW to buld the passenger rail track.

    The 20 or so miles west of Albany is single track and owned by Amtrak. NY State is working with Amtrak to build a second track there and build the missing 4th station track in Albany. Both projects will greatly improve on-time performance in the Empire Corridor.

  • Boris

    The High Speed Rail Task Force Report says, “The network map is based on a compilation of previous passenger rail plans and
    proposals from 30 years of studies.”

    For how many years did we study highways before building hundreds of them?

  • NikolasM

    I thought the entire ROW used to be 4 wide anyways, now in most places just 2. There should be plenty of space.

  • Norman Brown

    *-10 B capital cost, How many passengers do we get for that?

  • Adam P

    There is plenty of room to add additional tracks, especially since it used to be there already. Plus its is mostly flat and I believe there is only a handful of large bridges. The big issue if they decide to do this would be eliminate all the at-grade crossings. Electrification would be nice, but 110-150mph is still a nice improvement and would pull a lot of people from their cars and paying tolls on the NYS Thruway. What about eminent domain for obtaining part of the ROW from CSX?

  • Regarding the complaint that its not a bullet train system, by the same token a bullet train system is not a mass transit system.

    Any system that is designed to fit a particular niche well will, necessarily, “not be” something else.

    As a Rapid Rail system, its certainly justifiable.

    With respect to electrification, the Dept. of Transportation should insist that all new works include sufficient clearance to be compatible with later overhead electrification. Given that, electrification of the line is a much lower hurdle to cross than getting the line established in the first place.

    Indeed, given that HSR … “real” Rapid Rail as well as “real” bullet trains … between metro areas of that size with those prospective trip times ought to be able to cover its operating cost and yield a surplus, unlike other rail systems, this is a case where electrification can be directly self-funding.

    Provided, of course, that an effective 110mph service gets up and running.

  • @ Adam P … there’s no need to exercise eminent domain, CSX is willing to sell the required portion of the ROW. It is to their benefit, of course, since it reduces their property tax obligations (recall that freight railroads, unlike road freight and air freight, PAYS tax on its privately owned infrastructure, rather than getting tax subsidy to support taxpayer provided infrastructure).

  • Bruce, the problem is that if the ROW has many curves, then upgrading to HSR can be a pain. The Acela is capable of 200 mph, but runs at less than 100 mph in Connecticut; increasing its speed requires eliminating curves one at a time, with cost and NIMBYism problems at every step.

    There’s also a separate issue of priorities. It’s arguably better to spend the money on just electrifying the existing line, and install full HSR tracks in stages. That way, an electric train would run at high speeds on the new lines, and at medium speed on the old lines. This is more flexible because each time money becomes available, it can just be used to upgrade more track sections to high speed.

  • anon.

    “there’s no need to exercise eminent domain, CSX is willing to sell the required portion of the ROW. It is to their benefit, of course, since it reduces their property tax obligations”

    And unlike many states (for instance, Pennsylvania) NY gives *NO* property tax breaks to railroads. It’s very much in CSX’s interest to have an easement on the rails rather than owning them — if they can tolerate the lack of control.

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