Governor Kathy Hochul is asking the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) Chairman and CEO Janno Lieber to evaluate whether or not the agency (which runs the State’s two commuter rail systems, Metro North and the Long Island Railroad) should take over the Upstate New York routes that the Department of Transportation (NYDOT) currently contracts Amtrak to provide.
The NYDOT pays Amtrak more than $44 million annually to provide train service between New York City and destinations in Upstate New York and Canada — on service lines including the Empire Line (to Buffalo), the Maple Leaf Line (to Toronto), the Adirondack Line (to Montreal), and the Ethan Allen Line (to Burlington, VT).
The Empire and Maple Leaf Lines generate more than $72 million in ticket revenue; the Adirondack Line generates $7.5 million; while the Ethan Allen Line generates another $3 million. That $82.5 million in ticket revenue and $44 million DOT subsidy allows Amtrak to breakeven on the $126.5 million operation.
That’s small potatoes for the MTA, which has a $16.725 billion annual operating budget. Running a few daily trains to Albany and Buffalo should be well within its capabilities.
“If the MTA can provide the same services at the same frequencies as Amtrak, the Governor would prefer to have in-house control of the services to better promote their usage and better effectuate their service value to New Yorkers across the state,” one transportation analyst close to the Governor explains.
Hochul believes that the biggest obstacle to providing truly high-speed train service to upstate destinations is Amtrak’s lack of ownership of track infrastructure. Because Amtrak relies on CSX tracks to provide service north of Poughkeepsie, freight trains are given priority for much of the route, making the ride from New York City to Buffalo nearly nine hours long.
With the MTA managing the lines, the State could acquire various defunct rights of way to construct dedicated passenger-only tracks across the State over time — perhaps over ten to twenty years. Such an end-to-end state-owned track system would be able to provide service from New York City to Buffalo in under four hours, presuming use of Acela trains on track configurations that allow for an end-to-end average speed of 120 miles per-hour.
(Acela trains can operate at speeds of up to 150 miles per hour, but only where tracks are flat enough and straight for extended distances).
“High-speed rail is a huge undertaking and will take decades to bring to fruition, but Governor Hochul wants to take the first concrete steps in that direction: first, by directly managing, rebranding, and aggressively marketing the service that exists today, such as it is; and, second, to start to assemble all of the defunct railroad right of ways that meander across the State,” the analyst explains.
“If the administration can assemble an end-to-end right-of-way over the next four to six years, it would be a spectacular accomplishment,” she adds. “And if she takes a collaborative posture with the railroads, it may only take a handful of real estate transactions.”
CSX is expected to eagerly sell its ownership interests in most of its defunct right-of-ways in New York State, as the firm is eager to remove passenger traffic from its freight-focused track network.
It’s also thought that Amtrak would be willing to transfer ownership of the Hudson River Line tracks running from Spuyten Duyvil into Penn Station, under Manhattan’s West Side. If the State takes over upstate-bound routes, Amtrak would have no use for the otherwise un-utilized section of tracks. (The MTA would like to use that section of railway for Phase II of it’s long-planned West Side Access Project, bringing Metro North commuter trains directly into Penn Station).
Amtrak’s next-generation fleet of Acela trains is coming online this year, with 20 sets each configured of eight cars (two power cars and six coaches). The fleet was manufactured for $1.5 billion. Currently the Northeast Corridor route between Washington, DC and Boston is the only electrified route capable of accommodating the high-speed locomotives — which may send the surplus trains to the scrap yard.
Rather than scrap the 20-year old locomotives altogether, some have suggested that they could be recycled for use by the MTA to operate on the Empire Corridor — but that would require fully electrifying 460 miles of track, which would cost $2.2 billion. And since neither the State or Amtrak owns the the Empire Corridor tracks, it’s not an investment that Hochul is willing to make.
“For the foreseeable future, the Hochul administration’s advancement of high speed rail as a long term objective will be focused on acquiring the right-of-ways that could one day accommodate the end-to-end construction of a brand new passenger-only track system from Penn Station to Buffalo,” the staffer postulates. “Maybe by her second term we’ll be able to start thinking about design and construction.”
“There are obviously more immediate day-to-day priorities than high speed rail, but Governor Hochul wants to prove she can both solve the pressing challenges of the day while laying out a vision for the future and a plan to get us there,” she posits.