New York transportation officials are setting up public hearings to discuss options for an idea that has been kicked around for years but has yet to leave the station: high-speed passenger rail service.
Boosting the speeds of trains traveling Amtrak's Empire Corridor between New York City and Niagara Falls has been the goal of industry leaders, elected officials and transit advocates for two decades. Progress may be coming down the line now that the state Department of Transportation and the Federal Railroad Administration have scheduled hearings next month in six upstate cities along the 463-mile corridor.
New York was required to conduct the environmental review to be eligible for any new federal funding for high-speed rail, according to DOT spokesman Beau Duffy.
"It has taken longer than anyone had wanted, but we're happy this draft is out and the hearings are scheduled," said Bruce Becker of East Amherst, president of the Empire State Passengers Association, a passenger rail advocacy group.
The public meetings will be held between March 4 and 14, starting in Albany and followed by Syracuse, Buffalo, Rochester, Utica and Poughkeepsie. The public will have the opportunity to view displays and question experts about the plans.
The environmental review analyzes the five most viable higher-speed options for trains with top operating speeds of 79, 90, 110 and 125 mph. The current top speed allowed west of Schenectady is 79 mph, although the study said the current average speed for Amtrak trains traveling between Buffalo and Albany barely tops 50 mph. Trains traveling between Albany and Manhattan can go as fast as 110 mph along some stretches.
The costs of the plans range from $1.7 billion to $6.2 billion, with the most expensive calling for construction of a third track dedicated to passenger trains traveling the 273 miles between Schenectady and the Amtrak station in Depew, just east of Buffalo. That plan, favored by Becker's group, would also add a fourth passenger track over a combined distance of nearly 40 miles in five separate locations.
Once the state selects its option, the FRA must sign off on the plan, which isn't expected to happen for an additional six months to a year, Duffy said.
Amtrak must share existing rail lines with CSX freight trains that are given track priority, a situation that frequently causes delays for the passenger trains. The main east-west choke point is the single track that runs between Albany and Schenectady. Upgrades to that 17-mile existing stretch were completed in December, while work on a new second track between the two cities is expected to begin this year, Duffy said.