Hopes high for growing ridership at Schenectady rail station

Goal is to translate public enthusiasm into more ridership
Thanksgiving travelers board trains in the Schenectady Train Station on Nov. 21, 2018.
Thanksgiving travelers board trains in the Schenectady Train Station on Nov. 21, 2018.

SCHENECTADY — Now that Schenectady has a new state-of-the-art railroad station whose architecture echoes the era of grand railroad stations, the question is whether it will bring more train passengers into the city.

Rail passenger advocates hope so, and also hope additional trains will eventually be added to the six Amtrak trains that now pass through the station daily in each direction, all of them as part of larger routes, including the Empire, Adirondack, Ethan Allen and Lake Shore Limited.

“The construction of the new station should boost ridership without changes in service by giving passenger rail a ‘better image” on the local level,” said Benjamin Turon, vice president and social media coordinator for the Empire State Passenger Association.

Amtrak can’t yet provide statistics on whether ridership has increased since the $23 million station opened on the site of the former decrepit station in mid-October, at the corner of Erie Boulevard and Liberty Street. That culminated decades of effort, including false starts and the eventual direct involvement of Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Over recent years, the Schenectady station averaged about 60,000 combined departures and arrivals per year, though in federal fiscal 2018, when a temporary open-air platform was in use during construction of the new station, the number dropped to 47,768, according to Amtrak.

With the station located in the heart of a revitalized downtown, there’s opportunity to increase the numbers, but it will take a coordinated effort to appeal to people arriving by train, said Tom Martinelli, publisher of New York by Rail, an on-train magazine and continuously updated website focused on promoting rail tourism in the state.

“That old station just didn’t do Schenectady justice,” said Martinelli, who lives in Dutchess County and has traveled through the new Schenectady station. “That is a state-of-the-art train station. It is a new day. It’s great gateway into Schenectady for the tourism or business traveler.”

Martinelli cautioned, however, that the station, while giving those arriving by train a better first impression of the city, won’t itself lead to more people arriving by train. That will take promotion, he said, and a focus on services being available when people arrive by train, such as transportation options to easily connect to hotels or other destinations.

“Will it increase ridership by itself? No. But it creates a lot of opportunity,” Martinelli said. “Schenectady needs to get behind it. They need to educate the tourism community about how to be a rail-ready train destination.”

Efforts to incorporate the station into tourism-promotion efforts that Schenectady County ramped up with the arrival of the Rivers Casino & Resort are already underway.

“From its beautiful structure to its proximity and walkability to so many of our great downtown attractions, we’re excited to help promote it as yet another great avenue to discover Schenectady County,” said Becky Daniels, executive director of Discover Schenectady, the county’s tourism promotion agency.

Ray Gillen, chairman of the Schenectady County Metroplex Development Authority, said Metroplex is thrilled with the public reaction to the station, and he expects that to translate into ridership. He noted its recent listing on Amtrak’s Great American Stations website.

“There’s already a lot of people using the station,” he said. “Union College is thrilled, the downtown businesses are thrilled. It’s helped attract a lot of people. This has been a great launch.”

He said the Schenectady project is benefiting from other rail improvements across the state, and from the $91 million project completed in 2017 that installed a second track between Albany and Schenectady, cutting down on waits for both passenger and freight trains.

“We’ve been promoting the station, the casino has been promoting the station, and the colleges are supporting the station,” Gillen said. “It may take some time to develop new ridership.”

The Empire State Passenger Association has advocated for at least one addition — a train that would leave Saratoga Springs in the early morning, stop in Schenectady and Albany-Rensselaer, and go to Penn Station, and then return in the evening, allowing people from north and west of Albany to get to the city and back in a single day.

“Such a service would make day trips to New York City for business or leisure more attractive to the residents of Saratoga and Schenectady, providing an alternative to driving to Rensselaer,” Turon wrote in an email.

Any increase in service to the city would require approval from the state, which subsidizes Amtrak passenger service in New York state to the tune of $40 million per year.

State Department of Transportation spokesman Joseph Morrissey said the Schenectady station is among a series of upgrades the state has made in rail service along the Empire Corridor, which runs from New York City to Buffalo.

Those improvements, he said, include the second track that opened in 2017 between Albany and Schenectady; signal and track improvements between Albany and New York City; and new stations in Niagara Falls, Rochester and Schenectady. The state this week awarded construction contracts for a new station in Buffalo.

“The state is working to reverse decades of federal divestment in intercity passenger rail infrastructure since Congress turned over much of the system to the states in 2008,” Morrissey said. “As we continue our efforts to make the Empire Corridor service even more reliable, we will look at additional opportunities to enhance service levels.”

Amtrak reported that its Empire West corridor, from Albany west to Niagara Falls and Buffalo, had 366,696 riders in fiscal 2018, up 3.8 percent from the year before.

Of all the trains that pass through Schenectady, only the Lake Shore Limited allows passengers to bring bicycles. The passenger association and the state Canal Corp. have called for better accommodations for cyclists, so train travel could be used by people planning bicycle trips along parts of the still-developing Empire State Trail.

Reach Gazette reporter Stephen Williams at 518-395-3086, [email protected] or @gazettesteve on Twitter.

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