The state Department of Transportation has extended the public comment period on plans for high-speed rail service between New York City and upstate New York.
High-speed rail has a somewhat dark history in the Empire State. In 1998, New York and Amtrak deployed the "High Speed Rail Improvement Program," a $185 million initiative to improve service over the 463-mile Empire Corridor, connecting Penn Station in New York City with Niagara Falls Station. The first trains were supposed to roll in 1999, but delays in rebuilding and retrofitting seven RTL Turboliners delayed their return to the rails to April 2003. By June of that year, Amtrak removed the trains from service. New York sued Amtrak in 2004 for failing to enable Empire Corridor rails to handle 125 mile per hour trains.
In 2005, then-State Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno proposed research into high speed rail development in New York State as part of a plan to boost the upstate economy. "Timing in life is everything. Time is now. We're already late," quipped Bruno.
Time marched on: by 2007, the lawsuit was settled. In September 2007, Bruno visited the Rensselaer Amtrak Station, where he announced $22 million in high-speed rail initiatives, part of an overall effort to bring New York's rail service up to standards already in place in Europe and Asia.
Shortly after he took office in 2010, Governor Andrew Cuomo asked that New York be given federal high-speed rail money. The state did receive about $300 million to reduce delays at Penn Station.
Bruce Becker is President of the Empire State Passengers Association. "I'm gonna take ya a step a little further back in time, back to the mid-seventies when New York State contributed a significant amount of money for upgrades along the Empire Corridor, and starting at that time we had a 110 mile per hour top running speeds both between Albany-Schenectady and south from Albany to Hudson, and that high-speed track continues today."
The Federal Railroad Administration recently released a study outlining five options to upgrade train links between New York City and Niagara Falls. Becker says the move marks a necessary step in order to secure future funding so improvements can occur. "I should note that a number of improvements are getting under way in the Capital Region, including the long-sought second main track between Albany-Schenectady to relieve a bottleneck that has existed for over 25 years."
Becker says 110 miles an hour is not particularly high speed when compared against trains in Europe and Asia. "Given what is practical and realistic from both a cost standpoint and a political will standpoint is likely the most reasonable opportunity to have improvements in the near term."
Officials have received about 250 comments and held six public hearings across the state that attracted more than 500 people. The FRA's comment period was to have ended Monday. Transportation Commissioner Joan McDonald now says comments will be accepted via the DOT's website through April 30, or emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org