Upstate New York High Speed Rail:

A rail-fan's thoughts on the proposal

a commentary by Perette Barella

High-speed rail on the east bank of the Hudson is a good opportunity to use some of the TARP money earmarked for high-speed rail. The line is already electrified to Croton-Harmon, but with Metro North railroad operating to Poughkeepsie in addition to Amtrak's trains, this seems an excellent candidate for the high-cost electrification and track changes necessary to enable high-speed rail.

Even the additional 75 miles past Poughkeepsie north to Albany-Renssellaer, with 28 Amtrak trains running weekdays on this route, seems like a fair utilization of the bailout.

West from Albany/Rennsellaer, however, seems like a rather questionable investment. With 8 trains total– that figure includes both east- and west-bound trains– the line utilization of the 300-mile corridor does not warrant electrification. The upstate population density simply can not justify the $3 billion price tag to build this line.

On a technical side, while addition of a third pair of rails through upstate will allow higher-speed movement and prevent freight interference from delaying Amtrak, the electrification needed to attain high speed means that passing opportunities (necessary because Amtrak trains will be passing opposing trains somewhere between Albany and Niagara Falls) will be reduced. The more reasonable-cost option is to provide periodic electrified sidings– but this means that trains can only pass where there is an electrified siding, and the "earlier" train must stop and wait for the opposing train to pass. With limited sidings, a late train must wait at the prior siding (causing it to fall further behind schedule), or the opposing train must wait longer than normal at the scheduled passing siding, causing it to fall behind schedule as well. The issues of passing with a single electrified track creates a situation where passenger trains could incur similar or even more congestion to what we now see from freight.

A more cost-prohibitive option is to electrify an entire set of additional tracks– presumably one of the CSX ones– so Amtrak could leave its dedicated right-of-way to pass anywhere. Some may cite electrification of one of the CSX tracks to allow passing as an opportunity for CSX to begin use of electric engines. Not feasible, as their trains need to pass each-other too. Thus, unless all 3 tracks were electrified– the existing two, plus the new high-speed one– would CSX be able to use electric engines. Then, however, there is the issue that neither their lines out of Buffalo, nor Selkirk, nor any of their train yards along the way are electrified. The hassles incurred in having electric engines to operate just this 250-mile span seems to be more than they are likely to want to deal with.

Our neighbor to the east, Connecticut, could far better use some of that money for electrification of the Danbury line. Connecticut and Massachusetts have been talking for several years about electrification of the New Haven-Springfield line, but that's never gone anywhere for lack of budget, but given the major cities along that 65 mile route– Meriden, New Britain, Hartford, Springfield– and connections to the Northeast Corridor at New Haven it seems like a much better candidate for use of the money. Surely there are additional opportunities in California to put money earmarked for high-speed rail to good use.

High-speed rail is an enticing toy, a symbol of progress that excites our heart. Yet, like the fast ferry and other tragic wastes of money we see in Rochester, it is not an ultimately sensible use of public money.

My name is Perette Barella, and I'm a rail-fan, a/k/a train spotter, a/k/a Anorak.

High-speed from New York City to Albany could be an improvement for us, cutting travel time to New York City by about an hour, and we should settle for that. But I'm not going to be blinded by my infatuation with trains: high-speed rail west through upstate is a bad idea, and a poor use of public funds that could be put to far better use in more urban regions of the country.