High-speed rail between Buffalo and NYC isn’t cost-effective

Instead, Gov. Andrew Cuomo should invest in local transit improvements all over the state.

The Acela high-speed rail in Washington D.C.

The Acela high-speed rail in Washington D.C. Vacclav/Shutterstock

There is no more dependable career in the United States than producing high-speed rail studies. The studies are endless, since nothing ever gets built. Now, as part of his 2020 State of the State agenda, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has again revived discussion of building high-speed rail in the Empire Corridor from New York City to Buffalo via Albany.

While it is an admirable aim, American states have a dismal record of delivering on high-speed rail projects, and New York’s uniquely high construction costs make the prospect even more unlikely. This is a state with a long list of urgent transportation infrastructure needs – many of which are needed just to keep existing systems running. Those needs must take priority.

Dreams of high-speed rail in New York state are no doubt inspired by nostalgia for the days, eighty years ago, when the 20th Century Limited sped across the state and really was one of the fastest trains in the world. It ran up to 85 mph in 1938, faster than the 79 mph speed limit west of Albany today, and covered the New York to Buffalo stretch in 7.5 hours.

But a lot has happened since the time when Carole Lombard lunched on oyster stew in the dining car on the way to Los Angeles. The train is now an hour longer and, for many decades, there has been little but false starts on improvements. Back the 1970s, Amtrak began operating “Turboliners” on New York state routes. Trains powered by gas turbines (as opposed to diesel-electric engines) were fashionable back then as a way to run high-speed trains without electrifying tracks, which is what pretty much every other country with high-speed rail has done. They were theoretically capable of operating at 125 mph. But, as has happened far too often, the fast trains were bought in the hope that the upgrades to the track needed to make such speeds possible would happen. They did not. In the late 1990s, the aging trains were rebuilt, again with the promise that the needed track upgrades would finally happen. Surprise: they did not.

In 2012, the New York state Department of Transportation produced  a study that claimed a 160-mph service – comparable to high-speed trains in countries like France and Japan, not to mention Morocco and Uzbekistan – would cost about $37 billion dollars. The approximately 450-mile route – not all of which would be relatively expensive new line – would therefore cost about $82 million per mile. The 210-mile, 186-mph new line between Tours and Bordeaux in France, which opened in 2017, cost about $8.4 billion – about $40 million per mile – and that was considered quite an inflated figure.

By the time yet another study was completed in 2014, examination of anything faster than 125 mph (considered the international bare minimum definition of high-speed rail) was dropped. Even that was expected to cost $14.71 billion. Not much more was heard about it until the governor’s latest announcement.

This time, Cuomo says he has a way to control costs: he will use the same approach of seeking advice from outside experts on how to deliver the project as he did on the reconstruction of the L train subway tunnel under the East River. There’s no question that there is a lot of knowledge out there among the dozens of organizations that have successfully built and operated high speed trains – in some cases, for many decades. It recalls the proposal from SNCF, the French national railway, to build the California high-speed rail project on a more direct route for $38 billion. California’s plan, with projected costs now having ballooned to close to $100 billion, is now on life support. Since no modern high-speed railway has ever been built in the United States, it makes sense to seek advice internationally. The question is whether that advice is sought from experienced rail operators, or from high-tech entrepreneurs who are as inexperienced with building modern high-speed rail as Amtrak.

Still, any serious proposal for high-speed rail between New York City and Buffalo will be a multi-billion-dollar project. Would it be a meaningful improvement to the mobility of New York’s residents that would bring significant environmental benefits? Absolutely. Is it going to happen? The odds are only slightly better than Andrew Cuomo’s odds of winning this year’s Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

More importantly, is it the most important priority for a state with a crumbling transportation infrastructure? Local transit systems from Buffalo to Albany are starved for the operating funds that would allow them to operate a usable service. The Buffalo Skyway needs to be removed, and the I-81 viaduct in Syracuse is crumbling. New York City’s subway infrastructure is in a parlous state, resulting in frequent service disruption, and some segments are severely overcrowded. It needs both a major overhaul of signalling and other systems, and expansion to relieve overcrowding and improve access to underserved parts of the outer boroughs. The Gateway tunnels, connecting Penn Station to New Jersey, are desperately needed both to add capacity and to provide redundancy in the event of a disruption in the existing North River Tunnels, which are over a century old.

There is a desperate need for high-speed rail on many corridors in the United States, but the Empire Corridor is hardly the top priority, even among routes passing through New York. The most obvious choice would be the Northeast Corridor, which goes from Boston to Washington, D.C. via New York City and is by far the busiest intercity rail corridor in the United States. It operates on, at best, patched-up 1930s infrastructure and is prone to constant delays as a result. Much of it is far worse, like the tunnels Acela uses in Baltimore that were built during the Johnson administration – Andrew Johnson. Compounding the problem is that a route via Albany adds at least 40 miles to the more direct Interstate highway route between New York City and Buffalo via Scranton, Pennsylvania. It is difficult to make such a route time-competitive even with significant investment.

There is no question that better inter-city rail service is needed in New York. Upstate and Western New York cities need better connections between each other and to downstate.

Even if real high-speed rail is, realistically, not going to happen, there are still affordable improvements that could make a meaningful difference. The tracks between New York and Albany are already controlled by Metro North and Amtrak, which means that their trains aren’t at the mercy of freight railroad dispatchers, and delicate high-speed tracks aren’t torn up by frequent heavy freight trains. The cost of running trains more frequently and speeding up slow sections is comparatively low. Even just lowering relatively high fares – a move that might pay for itself with existing ridership – would be a good and cheap way of getting people off the Thruway.

West of Albany is trickier, since the freight railroad CSX owns the tracks. Still, there are relatively small interventions that could speed up some of the slowest segments. The traffic on the route pales in comparison to the Lehigh Line in New Jersey, which is a pair of tracks shared both by the main freight route to the New York City area and port and by a segment of NJ Transit’s busy Raritan Valley Line. That shows that there is plenty of capacity for additional passenger service without major infrastructure construction. If extra capacity is needed in certain areas, the double-track line was once the New York Central Railroad’s famed four-track Water Level Route, so there is plenty of room in the right-of-way for additional tracks.

Real, 125mph+ high-speed rail between New York City and Buffalo is a highly improbable dream, with so many more urgent needs crying out for attention. Still, there are plenty of opportunities to improve rail service in meaningful and affordable ways, and consulting with experienced rail operators around the world is a good way to figure out how to do them.