On the outskirts of Glenville sit the remains of New York’s last foray into high-speed rail — a set of Turboliner trains.
Amtrak was supposed to operate the diesel-powered passenger trains along a high-speed corridor to be created between Albany and New York City, where they would reach speeds of up to 125 mph.
The state paid Super Steel Schenectady Inc., formerly located in the Glenville Business and Technological Park on Route 5, nearly $70 million to refurbish the 1970s-era train sets.
Super Steel completed three of seven sets before the state killed the project in 2005 — seven years after former Gov. George Pataki unveiled a $185 million plan to create the high-speed rail corridor south of Albany. A set consists of a locomotive-and-passenger power car at each end, and two full-size passenger cars and a cafe car in the middle.
The trains never saw service. Amtrak put three sets in storage at a facility in Delaware. The state mothballed three sets. One set remains at the Glenville park, rusting on the tracks.
Now the state is revisiting high-speed rail, this time along the 430-mile Empire Corridor between Buffalo and New York City. Trains would reach speeds of up to 110 mph; the average speed is currently 79 mph.
And, once again, the state’s plan has gotten off to a shaky start. First off, the state received $151 million in federal stimulus money to launch the high-speed rail project.
“We all were expecting $500 million,” said Benjamin Sio of the High Speed Rail NY Coalition. Some $9 billion in stimulus money was set aside for high-speed rail projects in the United States; the cost to create a high-speed rail system in New York is estimated at $5 billion.
Still, Sio said, at least New York got some of the funds. “Overall, the Northeast region received almost $1 billion, which is comparable to the Midwest. A year ago February, we had zero money, zero plans. Today we have $151 million, which we have yet to secure. This will be a long process.”
Approximately $91 million of the $151 million amount would be used to build a second track between Schenectady and Albany, relieving a bottleneck affecting passenger and freight rail service along this corridor. The remainder of the money would be used for track improvements and to build a demonstration high-speed rail track near Batavia, where trains would be able to reach speeds of up to 110 mph.
One congressional official, who wished to remain anonymous, said New York’s application for high-speed rail funds was poorly written, and that the state received $151 million only through the intervention of Sen. Charles Schumer, D-NY, and Congresswoman Louise Slaughter, D-Rochester.
A second issue facing the state is that it has to obtain a framework agreement with CSX, Amtrak and the Federal Rail Administration by September in order to receive the $151 million, Sio said. The proposed high-speed rail track would operate alongside CSX’s main freight line; CSX owns the rights-of-way along the route.
CSX has a prior agreement with the state Department of Transportation stating that passenger trains running in proximity to its freight trains cannot exceed 90 mph. The prior agreement also states that high-speed tracks have to be 30 feet away from a CSX freight track.
The state is attempting to renegotiate those terms, said Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, D-Buffalo, a member of the Assembly’s Committee on Transportation.
Hoyt called the negotiations “not easy. CSX thought they had an agreement they could take to the bank.”
Said Hoyt, “The bottom line is this: CSX owns the entire rail corridor. We have to have a working relationship with CSX.”
The agreement came to light after the state’s high-speed rail director, Ann Purdue, resigned in April. Published reports said she resigned because Gov. David Paterson wanted to modify the agreement with CSX over rail speeds.
Hoyt said failing to reach a final framework by September will leave New York with only $6 million to start seven high-speed rail projects listed in the state’s approved application.
Sio said he and other members of the coalition are concerned that a framework agreement has yet to be signed. “Everyone’s focus is to get the agreement signed.”
Karen Rae, the Federal Railroad Administration’s deputy administrator, has stepped into the negotiations, hoping to salvage the state’s projects. Slaughter sponsored a meeting last week involving Rae, CSX, Amtrak and state officials. Slaughter’s spokeswoman, Victoria Dillon, said Rae will “move this along. She has worked in New York before.”
Rae was deputy commissioner of policy and planning at New York’s Department of Transportation.
Dillon said she remains confident about reaching an agreement with CSX regarding train speeds and rights of way. “The space exists to do this. There used to be four tracks along that corridor.”
Hoyt said Rae’s intervention is a positive step in helping to move negotiations along.
“I do think we will be successful. The highest levels of federal government are saying get this done. CSX is in the driver’s seat, to a certain degree, but it can’t ignore the head of the agency that regulates them,” Hoyt said.
At the same time, Hoyt said the state has to be cognizant of CSX’s concerns. The Empire Corridor is “one of the busiest freight corridors in its system. When we talk about high-speed rail as part of economic development, we have to be careful of not affecting CSX’s business,” Hoyt said.
Sio said CSX’s 90 mph requirement is understandable, based primarily on safety of rail operations. CSX has similar agreements in other states where it has freight lines.
Daniel Plaugher, director of Virginians for High Speed Rail, said “we see that with all the host railroads. The speeds have a potential impact on their freight services.”
Virginia received $75 million in federal stimulus money to add 11.4 miles of high-speed rail between Arkandale and Powell’s Creek, which would upgrade more than 10 percent of the Richmond-to-Washington rail corridor and improve the on-time performance of Virginia’s intercity and commuter rail services.
Plaugher said the trains will reach a speed of 90 mph, as per agreement with CSX. “Everyone hopes we can exceed 90 mph. Eventually we will have freight and passenger separation. Our speeds are now 60-65 mph.”
Plaugher said speeds can increase beyond 90 mph once the CSX installs a GPS-based signal system, which increases safety on the tracks.
Sio said his coalition also understands that achieving speeds of 110 mph is a long-term goal. “We understand we would have to build up to 110, 90 gets us there. Ninety miles per hour is the next logical step in speeds. We have until 2017 to reach the goal.”