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N.Y. rail plans at full speed

(The following article by Cathy Woodruff was posted on the Albany Times-Union website on January 6.)

RENSSELAER, N.Y. -- With a blueprint for overhauling train service throughout the state now in hand, Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno said Thursday that it's time to start making it happen.

At the top of Bruno's to-do list with his Senate High Speed Rail Task Force in the next six months: get the pieces in place for a $22 million program of track and signal work, consolidated rail corridor management and new express trains that will cut the trip to New York City to just over two hours and ensure that trains arrive consistently on time.

"You didn't get here by train," Bruno wise-cracked to a crowd gathered at the Rensselaer Rail Station. "If you had taken the train, we would be guessing what time you'd get here."

Bruno, a Rensselaer County Republican, pledged during a conversation with Times Union editors later Thursday to make funding of the first two-year phase of his ambitious passenger rail plan a high priority in state budget negotiations this year.

"It's all going to be part of negotiating a budget and what's in the best interest of the Capital Region and the state," he said.

He noted that Republican Gov. George Pataki and Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver of Manhattan are certain to have their own pet projects and programs in mind.

"They don't get done unless we make them our priorities in the Senate," he said.

Thursday's release of a Senate task force study piloted by former Albany International Airport CEO John Egan set out a series of short-range, mid-range and long-range goals that Bruno said will require the sustained commitment of state and federal money and interest to become reality.

Over the next 10 to 12 years, the task force recommends some $1.8 billion worth of improvements between New York City and Buffalo, including tracks and sidings to eliminate bottlenecks and conflicts with freight traffic and additional trains to provide more frequent service.

With more frequent and reliable trains traveling between New York City and upstate New York, Bruno predicted "the economic impact, job creation and the effect on the economy is just going to be tremendous."

Ultimately, the task force envisions a system of super-fast trains, perhaps using electrically powered magnetic levitation -- or "maglev" -- technology along the Thruway, traveling as fast as 200 to 300 mph between New York City and Buffalo. Such a system would be two decades away and would cost $10 billion to $20 billion to build, the task force and its consultants estimate.

"We in New York state were literally left at the station when it comes to moving people by rail," Bruno said. "We have got to come into the 21st century here."

Bruno repeatedly dismissed suggestions that this plan will go the way of some 22 previous studies on New York passenger rail now gathering dust.

The state's most recent attempt at faster train service, a $185 million program that included refurbishing a fleet of 1970s Turboliner trains, collapsed and is mired in litigation between the state Department of Transportation and Amtrak.

"We're moving from planning to action," Bruno said. "This is different from before, when balls were in the air and dropped. We're going to stay with it."

With more than 160 pages of charts, analysis and recommendations, the task force report caps three months of intensive work by the task force and a team of consultants headed by Parsons Brinckerhoff under a $1.2 million contract.

While Bruno initially launched the high-speed rail initiative in March with talk of European-style "bullet trains" zooming across New York, the task force's approach evolved to include an early emphasis on incremental changes Egan and Bruno said are necessary to improve rail service far sooner.

While the initial phase should shave 20 minutes off the travel time between Rensselaer and Manhattan, Bruno said an even more important goal is reducing delays. An average of 70 percent of Amtrak trains now are on time between Rensselaer and Penn Station. Only half of trains traveling west of Albany arrive on time at their final stops.

"You have to know that when you get on this train at eight in the morning, you are going to be in New York City at 10:05," Bruno said. "You have a whole day planned."

A critical early step -- and perhaps one of the most difficult -- will be to achieve agreement among Amtrak, Metro-North and CSX freight railroad to unify control of operations between New York City and Rensselaer, the task force's experts said.
All three railroads own portions of the tracks and ground equipment and manage operations of their own trains running on the line.

"With all the players that interface, it's a wonder that trains run at all and get there," Bruno said.

Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Thomas Libous, R-Binghamton, said his committee would go to work soon on any legislation required to launch the rail program. He said he'd look to Assembly members, including high-speed rail advocate Sam Hoyt, a Buffalo Democrat, to collaborate on the effort.

Friday, January 6, 2006

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