A dispute between the state Department of Transportation and the freight line CSX, which owns and operates the tracks between Albany and Buffalo, is threatening the state’s plan for high-speed passenger rail in that corridor. That’s not good. High-speed rail can not only provide a safe, convenient, energy-efficient alternative to driving or flying on shorter intercity trips, it can be a boon to upstate’s economy.
The state wants to increase train speeds in the Empire Corridor to at least 110 mph, like the popular Acela that travels the Northeast Corridor between Washington, New York City and Boston. But CSX wants them no faster than 90 mph — which the DOT apparently, and inexplicably, agreed to in a memorandum of understanding signed last fall (after the state had applied for federal high-speed rail money).
Even if CSX is legally in the right, its position is not reasonable. It might be if the state’s plan simply called for the high-speed trains (Amtrak trains now average 79 mph) to continue sharing the tracks with freight, as they do now. But the state would put in a third track for passenger trains — in a corridor that used to have four tracks. And since the right of way in the corridor is 100- to 200-feet wide, there would seem to be plenty of room.
But CSX says that, for its workers’ safety, it wants at least 30 feet between each set of tracks (Rep. Louise Slaughter, a champion of high-speed rail upstate, argues that no other freight line demands anywhere near that much buffer). This would make it impossible to lay a third track in many places along the route, and effectively kill New York’s chances of getting federal money for high-speed rail in the future.
CSX is under increasing pressure after a May 7 meeting with federal and state officials, and U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood last week assigned the head of the Federal Railway Administration (a former deputy commissioner with the state DOT) to find a solution so high-speed rail can go ahead in New York.
One possible stick is to tell CSX that if it won’t cooperate, the government will insist that it give priority to passenger trains, as federal law requires but which freight lines routinely ignore. In fact, the difference between 90 mph and 110 mph may be less important in terms of time saved and passenger satisfaction than eliminating the frequent delays and late trains caused by congestion from freight trains. A third track would help everyone, including CSX, which, as a major employer and shipper, is itself a vital part of the state’s economy.