Trains great and otherwise

amtrak engine in RensselaerOver at National Journal there's an interesting article looking at why the state of passenger rail service in the US is often underwhelming. Here's a clip that reminded us of a lot of discussions regarding public infrastructure here in the Capital Region:

The Gulf situation is a miniature version of the chicken-and-egg question that bedevils Amtrak as a whole: Is it a waste of money because there isn't sufficient demand for trains? Or is there insufficient demand for trains because we haven't spent the money to create a great rail system? Outside of the Northeast Corridor, the tracks Amtrak uses are almost all owned by freight railroads. CSX, Union Pacific, and a handful of other behemoths naturally hog them, which contributes to Amtrak's chronic tardiness, which in turn dissuades passengers from taking Amtrak. As a result, Congress cites Amtrak's low-ridership numbers as a reason not to grant it larger subsidies, which of course are exactly what Amtrak would need in order to purchase its own train tracks. Commenting on the vicious cycle, [former Amtrak chairman] John Robert Smith says: "You can't disinvest in something and then beat it to death because it doesn't perform."

There's already relatively strong demand for train service in the Northeast, and Albany-Rensselaer is one of the busiest stations in the whole system. But if you could hop a high-speed train from here and reliably arrive at New York-Penn in, say, an hour and a half -- what might that do for ridership?

And the same goes for other sorts of transportation systems. What if the Capital Region had a bus rapid transit system that was truly rapid and worked more like a subway system than a bus? What if people felt good about the state of local taxis? How would that affect demand for those modes?

Anyway, that National Journal article includes some interesting bits about funding for Amtrak, some floated proposals for private high-speed rail in other parts of the country, and how political support for trains is maybe a bit more nuanced than you might expect.

Earlier on AOA: Thinking about high-speed rail in New York

[via MeFi]


Too bad Albany cared more about building the ugly highway, and let Rens put one up.
This is the capital city!
Why should we have to schlep all the way to Rens, and pay for an expensive taxi, or an inconvinent bus back to Albany?

Instead of an improved bus rapid transit system, imagine a light rail network connecting Albany, Schenectady, Troy and the airport. Buses are loud, slow and add to the congestion of increasingly crowded highways. Rail, even light rail, is expensive, but the Capital Region is competing for $500mm after all ( The Capital Region needs a truly modern transportation infrastructure to attract great minds and secure economic growth.

$500 million might get us from the train station to Lark Street - it just doesn't buy much truly useful light rail. What we would get for that would actually be worse than a bus.

I’m not sure that light rail is the best way to go, especially as already noted, it’s a far more expensive prospect than building out a rapid bus transit system. Many jurisdictions have found that investment in rapid bus transit often pays off better than building out a light rail system. I’d say that any money that is being plugged towards mass transit should go towards enhancing the rapid bus transit being developed by CDTA, which plans on extending this network through the new Purple and Blue lines. This way, we are reinvesting in current infrastructure, rather than creating a new system that will need to be maintained. If there is strong support for light rail, I think a third rail along the current CSX/Amtrak line from Schenectady to Rensselaer would be the ideal choice, for at least you are minimizing the need to build out additional infrastructure, but branching this off to Troy, Southern Saratoga County and the airport could be difficult given that suburban sprawl has really choked the ability to push such a system out and developing along I-87 would meet fierce resistance from suburbanites. Based on conversations I’ve had with colleagues who are addicted to their car, they say they would most likely not use light rail, because it would prevent them from running errands on the way home, therefore, the adoption of such a system would most likely cannibalize the work CDTA is doing to build a robust, efficient, and extensive rapid bus transit system by pouching their users.

Light rail is a fascinating idea. A $500 million award would only get us part of the way, obviously. The interested cities and New York would be responsible for the rest (possibly federal grants?). As a former Minnesota resident, recently constructed light rail is fast, cheap (to commuters) and a wonderful way to travel from the heart of downtown Minneapolis to the airport (and yes, the Mall of America).

One thing that strikes me about the revitalization in downtown Troy and Schenectady is the constant worry about available parking spaces and the obstacle to further development that is created by parking concerns. A commuter rail would seem to alleviate some these concerns (as well as the well publicized atrocious taxi service).

I don't know that the Capital Region will ever have the bravery to undertake such a project, but I wonder if the expense would be lessened by the concomitant reduction in maintenance costs of existing city streets/roads.

I could see a CDTA administered light rail network. CDTA has binding authority I believe and the money could be raised that way. The project would probably cost several billion but if SUNY Poly can have $20B then this shouldn't deter anyone.

I for one am tired of the brutal rush hour traffic in the wolf/fuller/87 area and I'd pay just about anything to ride a commuter rail back to where I live (Troy) even if it meant being routed back through Albany.

In the last 20 years, more than a dozen European cities built subway systems (combos of underground/surface rails) to connect suburban communities/smaller cities to large urban hubs. I was never able to understand why we cannot replicate those efforts. In most cases, work was completed and ready to operate in under five years. In one particular case in one city, which I witnessed when it started, they simply opened up a massive crater in a park in the center of the city and started to dig from there.Those subways are always full, night and day. They provide fast, affordable and reliable transportation. While we waste billions of tax dollars in wars and tax breaks for individuals and corporations that do not need them, we are squandering opportunities to build and rebuild appropriate and sustainable infrastructure. When will the madness of rugged individualism stop and be replaced with the worthy project of rebuilding our commons?

"When will the madness of rugged individualism stop and be replaced with the worthy project of rebuilding our commons?" When it's far too late to do anything about it, most likely. This is 'Murica after all.

That's a comment about the commons in general though. More specifically, those cities in Europe were generally much larger and more important than any in the Capital District. A subway doesn't make even a bit of sense here.

@Joe A Because this is Albany, a city\town\region that can only talk a big game, yet never deliver. It's the biggest issue with this place - instead of an Aquarium or useful feature in downtown, we get a reduced size convention center. Instead of developing the waterfront in Albany\Rens\Troy, a giant ugly highway is built.
Instead of finding a use for the Central Warehouse, it just sits there, doing nothing and looking completely horrible.

I think CDTA expansion is a logical first step towards light rail over the long term. Show the ridership and demand, exert political pressure.

Montgomery, Fulton, Greene and Columbia Counties can all join CDTA, by the way, and save a lot of money on their current local bus services, and get better and cheaper service. All they need to do is vote to join CDTA and earmark a small percentage of the mortgage recording tax as a cost-share, a net gain for the counties.

But when influential local business people (ahem, local school bus companies) hold lucrative county contracts, this obviously beneficial idea stops in its tracks.

"A subway doesn't make even a bit of sense here."

Why not? It makes perfect sense to me. It would remove traffic from congested streets. It would provide shelter for commuters in harsh winters while waiting for transportation. It would make snow removal on our streets far easier (in fact, steam generated from subways can be used to melt surface snow). It would substantially reduce pollution and promote air quality, with less need for buses spewing all kinds of carcinogens. It could be run at a lower cost than buses, since elecrtic engines are much easier and cheaper to maintain. It could branch out into surface rails to all of the major cities around the capital region. And it could connect travelers to railyards for longer state and interstate routes. Ambitious? Yes? Costly? Yes. Possible? Absolutey. What doesn't make sense?

"What doesn't make sense?"

Well for starters, your list of perks is generally correct + expected, but vague to the point of uselessness in a rubber-hits-the-road discussion.

The beauty of our current bus system, and a feather in the cap of their increasing success, is the ability to review, adapt and revise service in response to the ever-changing conditions.

However, and simply put, our region is not large enough (population) or dense enough to support any kind of ambitious subway / metro system. Look at recent efforts to expand existing rail service in MAJOR cities with booming public transit systems (Boston, DC, etc...) to get a better understanding of the planning + economic factors that make or break these kinds of projects.

It's also a failure in logic to consider this an either-or situation. The most successful transit systems I have experienced are those where buses, subways + commuter rails all function as branches that are part of the same tree. They rely-on and accentuate one another by leveraging their specific perks while letting the others supplement in areas where they're deficient.

All this aside, it would be quite interesting to see a sketch of where some potential subway stops would be were we to have one. That'd be fascinating to imagine.

Joe A, It's a city of less than 100,000 people, without the demand or the density to warrant a subway. Many larger cities in the country don't even warrant this. The presence of multiple cities in the area does little to boost its utility. Also, the traffic here is not bad at all, so there's even less to warrant it. You're talking about an astronomical investment without even the hope of it being needed.

I don't think anyone would support a light rail system for the city of Albany, but I don't think any of the earlier comments have suggested that either. There are roughly 1.1M people in the "Capital District" (variously defined: The beauty of a light rail system for this area is that it would offer fast connection between each of the major cities in the CD. How incredible would it be to board a CDTA light rail train at a station in Latham/Clifton Park/the airport and step off in downtown Albany or Schenectady?

Jay and Sean,
It is true that the city itself only has about 100,000 residents. However, the burbs bring in thousands more every day. It would be a combination of both that could make the system viable, not just Albany city residents, obviously. The taffic is not bad, but evreyone complains about backed up traffic at rush hour. The parking situation is virtually unbearable and bussinesses like AMC keep putting up monstruous parking lots to accommodate commuters who have no access to public transportation. And Sean, "It's also a failure in logic to consider this an either-or situation. The most successful transit systems I have experienced are those where buses, subways + commuter rails all function as branches that are part of the same tree." My failure in logic seems to also be your failure in logic, since you're proposing that the "only" bus system is perfectly good and adaptable as a single solution. Why would my proposed subway system be a failure in logic for not considering the combination of means of transportation, but your assumption that "only" the bus system is perfectly acceptable as a single solution? I don't see the logic of your finger pointing at my failure in logic. Jay, I understand that the investment is quite large, but so was the aerial 787, and the ESP, and they were carried out. Ambition is the mother of innovation and progress. As for imagining the subway stops, I have done that in my head, and I saw multiple parks in Albany, the colleges and universities, like the SUNY campus and the State campus, being perfect candidates for subway stations. When well designed, subway stations can integrate green spaces and afford a larger number of people the opportunity to enjoy them. Okay, my dream is out there! Don't get all upset about

Joe, no one's getting upset, but you're not going to get me excited about wasting several billion dollars. And hearing it proposed as an actual suggestion is something that begs for response.

"Why would my proposed subway system be a failure in logic for not considering the combination of means of transportation, but your assumption that "only" the bus system is perfectly acceptable as a single solution?" Because you're proposing it here. Propose it elsewhere and you'll have a point. A subway will absolutely never be needed or appropriate here. The only transit solution here that won't be a waste of money is buses, for quite a long time. Eventually, maybe a trolley system, but even then, only when the cars are gone. Even light rail or a streetcar would be a huge waste of money for here.

But you're always welcome to post examples of other cities less than 100,000 people (remember, your idea was an Albany system, the other places in the region were an afterthought) that have grade separated, heavy rail systems.

If we were to rip off the pavement along most of the busiest streets in Albany, you would still see trolley tracks. Dismantling the electric trolleys will go down in history as one of the worst decisions ever made in this country. How great it would have been to still have these quiet and clean modes of transportation. This, along with subsidizing mega highways and single-family homes in the suburbs, guaranteed the decay of our central cities. What needs to happen in Albany is to remove the special privileges of cars. Washington, Western, Madison - all of these streets need to be reengineered so that a lane is dedicated only to bus travel and a lane is dedicated only to cyclists. Anything else is just lip service. Suburban drivers will just have to suck it up, but these changes would increase the desirability of city living and lead to a large rise in property values in the city.

That's an great point about the trolleys.

AOA had a great article about the trolleys a few years ago.

The trolleys took you practically anywhere you wanted to go. I'm not sure it was a short trip however.

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