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Slow route to high speed: Will Buffalo-Falls rail line be part of NY state spending?

(The following story by Richard E. Baldwin appeared on the Buffalo News website on August 29, 2010.)

NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y. — New York State is to receive millions of dollars to improve passenger railroad service from New York City to Niagara Falls and to modernize Amtrak’s Buffalo station on Dick Road in Depew — but it remains uncertain whether any of that money will provide faster train service between Buffalo and Niagara Falls.

If all goes as planned, it definitely will provide faster trains on the portion of the line between Buffalo and New York City.

“But the line between Buffalo and Niagara Falls is relatively low on the high-speed agenda,” Mayor Paul A. Dyster said after he attended a meeting on fast-rail service earlier this year in Albany.

“Transportation planners are thinking about the eventual possibility of re-establishing railroad commuter service between Buffalo and Niagara Falls,” the mayor said, “and we could see expanded use of the ‘Maple Leaf’ train to Canada if the downstate portion of its route is upgraded for faster service.”

The question of faster or more frequent service between Buffalo and Niagara Falls was on the minds of a lot of people at last week’s ceremonial groundbreaking for a new Amtrak station in the old U. S. Customs House, 2245 Whirlpool St. in the city’s North End.

The U. S. Department of Transportation has awarded the state $151 million for seven projects to improve railroad service from New York City west to Buffalo and Niagara Falls, and from New York north to Montreal, as well as to modernize Amtrak stations in Rochester and Depew.

But only $1.7 million of that grant has been transferred to the state so far. That includes $727,000 to rehabilitate the Depew station. The grants are administered by the Federal Railroad Administration.

Gov. David A. Paterson said the funding would enable the state Department of Transportation to continue its efforts “to expand highspeed intercity passenger rail service to the western region of New York State, even during this period of fiscal constraint.” But he left unanswered the question of whether the highspeed project would end at Buffalo’s main station or continue the additional 29 miles to serve Buffalo’s downtown station on Exchange Street and the Niagara Falls station.

The state DOT said the $727,000 for Depew would bring that “train station into a state of good repair and provide access that meets Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards. Work will include constructing access ramps and railings, improving the ticket counter area, designing and constructing ADAcompliant restrooms, station entrance ramps and signs, including a new passenger information display and public pay telephones.”

Stanley Gee, acting commissioner of the DOT said rail “is an affordable, reliable and energy-efficient mode of transportation, and the expansion of high-speed passenger rail services will position the state for the future.”

‘Getting on board’

Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport, said she will be pleased when the first highspeed rail train pulls into the Depew station.

“High-speed rail is the next revolution in transportation, and New York is getting on board,” she said.

Slaughter, who was among the speakers at Tuesday’s groundbreaking in Niagara Falls, formed and leads the Upstate Congressional Caucus, which champions high-speed rail.

She explained that the former New York Central Railroad had a four-track mainline on its “water-level route” across New York State. The present operator, CSX railroad, has abandoned and removed two of those tracks, leaving only two tracks to be shared by CSX freight trains and Amtrak passenger trains.

“I want to use the right of way of one of those two ‘abandoned’ tracks for a third track dedicated to passenger trains. The third-tracking project is going well,” Slaughter said.

Amtrak has established a High-Speed Rail Department to study the feasibility of increasing top speeds up to 220 mph on its Northeast Corridor between Washington, D. C., and Boston via New York City. It currently operates some trains at up to 150 mph, but speed limits in upstate New York are about 79 mph.

China, a pioneer in highspeed rail service, is building a line between Beijing and Shanghai that will have a top commercial speed of 240 mph and an average of 210 mph, making it the fastest rail service in the world, according to the Empire State Passengers Association, a private special-interest group that says it is “working for a more balanced transportation system.”

Dyster’s suggestion that some thought is being given to re-establishing commuter rail service between Buffalo and Niagara Falls harks back a few decades to the days when the former New York Central operated several “Beeliners” daily on its Falls Branch. Each “Beeliner” was a single self-powered coach with a diesel engine.

Today’s schedule calls for three trains a day in each direction between Buffalo and Niagara Falls.

One of those three is the “Maple Leaf,” mentioned by Dyster in his discussion of highspeed rail service. The “Maple Leaf” operates one round-trip daily between New York and Toronto via Buffalo and Niagara Falls. It takes about 12z to 13z hours to make the 544- mile trip, including stops for border inspections between Niagara Falls, N. Y., and Niagara Falls, Ont., and for “slow orders” during track repairs downstate.

The Falls project

Nevertheless, local planners are moving ahead with plans to convert the old Customs House to a modern Amtrak station and intermodal transportation center that also will include an interpretive center describing the Underground Railroad route used by slaves to escape to freedom in Canada.

The old Customs House stands almost directly across Whirlpool Street from the American end of the Whirlpool Rapids Bridge across the Niagara River gorge between the U. S. and Canada.

Tom DeSantis, the city’s senior planner, said the project would use nearby Bath Avenue as the prime route to connect rail traffic with automobiles, buses, tourist trolleys, bicycles and pedestrians. An 80-car parking lot is envisioned, along with stalls for buses, a taxicab zone and four automobile stands for a “kiss-n-ride.”

He said the area in front of the Customs House would be a formal, parklike setting with landscaping, benches and interpretive kiosks. The area in front of a new addition to the building would be a more active plazalike space for use by those waiting to be picked up or those using other public portions of the facility. Landscaping would extend around the block in each direction.

DeSantis said the latest estimate of the project’s cost is about $44.5 million.

“While that seems an unattainable amount,” he said, “only $19 million in federal funding of the total remains unobligated.”

Both the state and city have submitted federal grant applications for the remainder.

The U. S. Customs House, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is a 2z-story limestone building now owned by the City of Niagara Falls. It has not been used since the early 2000s, when it was occupied by private offices.

The building is projected to house U. S. Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection operations on the second floor, with heritage interpretation public uses on the first floor. An addition to the building will house the Amtrak railroad passenger station, with ticketing counters, and it will be the primary security checkpoint for passengers arriving and leaving from the platform.

When the renovation is completed, the current Amtrak passenger station in a former Lehigh Valley Railroad freight warehouse at the foot of 27th Street near Hyde Park Boulevard will be closed, and all operations will be moved to the new location.

Monday, August 30, 2010

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