Sunday Train: Is Cuomo Dragging His Feet on the Empire Rapid Rail Corridor?

It’s been two and a half years since I started working full time for my University here in Beijing, and in that time, the frequency of the Sunday Train dropped from once a week a week with only the occasional missed week, to a few scattered runs during Semester breaks.

Back in January 2014, more than half a year before I started my job in Beijing, the Draft Tier I Environmental Impact Statement for the New York State Empire Corridor High Speed Rail study was signed off on by Joseph Szabo, then Administrator of the Federal Rail Authority. It was released with a comment period through to March 24, 2014.

So, let’s catch up to the current state of play. As Albany’s Times Union reported on 8 Oct, 2016:

Although the public comment period on the draft of the study ended April 30, 2014, the final environmental impact statement has yet to be released.

Now, the state Department of Transportation, which led the study, says it hopes to have the final document completed by the end of March, agency spokeswoman Jennifer Post said. The Federal Railroad Administration, at the state DOT’s request, has extended the deadline to Sept. 30, 2017.

Well, then, haven’t missed much. Join me for a look at what is up with the Empire Corrior, and why the NY DOT has been slow-walking the completion of this report, below the fold.


A Glance at the Empire Corridor

The Empire Corridor is made up of two basic pieces: the Empire Corridor South, from NYC Penn Station to Schenectady/Hoffmans, and the Empire Corridor West, from Schenectady/Hoffmans to Buffalo. The in-state Empire service is completed by running to Niagara Falls on the CSX Niagara Branch.

The Empire Corridor hosts a number of longer distance trains, including:

  • The Lakeshore Limited is a split service long-haul sleeper service from both Boston and NYC to Albany, through to Chicago, with the NYC split running on the Empire Corridor South and the combined train running on the Empire Corridor West ~ though as a long-haul overnight train, the Lakeshore Ltd does not sell tickets between NYC and Albany;
  • The Maple Leaf runs the entire Empire Corridor route through to Niagara Falls, and then on to Toronto;
  • The Airondack, which runs on the Empire Corridor South through to Albany and then runs to Montreal; and
  • The Ethan Allen Express, which runs on the Empire Corridor South through to Albany and then runs to Rutland, Vermont

All of these except the Lakeshore Limited operate with operating subsidies from New York State. These provide three daily service from NYC to Albany, and two from NYC to Buffalo. The New York in-state Empire Service adds two Niagara Falls / NYC service and seven Albany / NYC trains, to make four weekday NYC/Buffalo services and ten NYC/Albany services.

The all-stations NYC/Albany service is scheduled for 2:30 hours, with the express services that bypass Yonkers and Poughkeepsie at 2:25 and express that also bypasses Croton-Harmon at 2:15, making it an effective train to take for a day trip, and its schedule reflects that, with 7:30am, 8:15am, 9:20am and 10:50am weekday arrivals in NYC and 4:40pm, 5:47pm, 7:15pm, 8:45pm and 10:45pm departures. However, day trips from NYC to Albany are not as effectively supported, with the first northbound arrival in Albany 9:50am and the latest daily departure at 7:15pm (both provided by the Maple Leaf).

The Tier I Draft EIS (2014, 2-30) [html portal] gives 2009 ridership figures of 933 thousand trips between the six largest origins and destinations on the Empire Corridor: NYC, Albany, Utica, Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo. It states that, “The greatest number of boardings, 45 percent, involved travel to and from New York City. Albany was the second most popular origin/destination city, with 37 percent of the total market share.”

However, this is clearly a misrepresentation. One the one hand, since all other origins and destinations are filtered out, we do not know what share of total origins or total destinations any of these cities account for. On the other hand, among the trip pairs given, New York City accounts for 45% of departures and 45% of arrivals, so it is involved with 90% of the major market trip pairs. At the same time, Albany is involved with 34% of departures and 34% of arrivals, so it is involved with 75% of market pairs.

Obviously the two add up to over 100%, because the sensible way to talk about market shares for a total number of people making one among 30 specific directional trips is the market shares of specific trip-pairs. The Albany/NYC trip (both directions) accounts for 68.6% of all Major Market trips. We can in fact aggregate the four Empire Corridor West (ECW) Major Markets to get a much clearer picture of the ridership on this corridor:

  • 68.6%: NYC / Albany
  • 22.1%: NYC / ECW
  • 6.1%: Albany / ECW
  • 3.2%: Intra-ECW

Given the mix of five different Amtrak services providing this service, it would be difficult to determine how much of the total ridership along the corridor is covered by these fifteen trip-pairs, and how much involves Yonkers, Croton-Harmon, Poughkeepsie, Rhinecliff, an Hudson on the Empire Corridor South or Amsterdam, Rome and Niagara Falls on the Empire Corridor West, but so long as the “minor markets” are one or both sides of less than 25% of trips, the NYC/Albany trip accounts for more than half of the trips on the Empire Corridor … despite the misleading market share description given by the Draft EIS.


The Proposed Alternatives

Back in 2014, as describe in Politico in New York’s forgotten high-speed rail study, the release of the Draft EIS presented five options: “Do Nothing”, [BAS], two versions of maximum 90mph upgrades [90A & 90B], a 110mph upgrade [110], and a 125 upgrade, largely on a new alignment in the Empire Corridor West [125]. As Politico describes it:

The “base” do-nothing option [BAS], with average speeds of 51 mph and nine-hour travel times from New York City to Niagara Falls.

There’s a $1.66 billion option [90A] that would add 64 miles of new mainline track, allowing speeds of up to 90 miles per hour between Schenectady and Buffalo, but with an average speed of 57 mph. The New York City to Niagara trip would take eight hours.

There’s a $5.58 billion alternative [90B] that would add a dedicated passenger track for 273 miles between Schenectady and Buffalo, allow train speeds of up to 90 mph and increase the average speed to 61 mph. The trip to Niagara Falls would take seven-and-a-half hours.

There’s a $6.25 billion option [110] that would also add a new fourth main track in some locations, allow maximum speeds of up to 110 mph, and an average speed of 63 mph. The trip to Niagara Falls would take slightly less than seven-and-a-half hours.

And, finally, the $14.71 billion option [125]: a two-track, grade-separated, 283-mile corridor between Albany and a new Buffalo station, some of it along new elevated tracks. Average speeds would hit 108 mph for non-Amtrak trains between Albany and Buffalo. Trains in some places would hit maximum speeds of 125 miles per hour, with the overall average speed hitting 77 mph on the express track (53 on the local). The travel time to Niagara would, on the express tracks, fall to six hours.

A funny thing happens when looking at the detailed description of the alternatives. For the Empire Corridor South, they are all the same except for the “No Build” alternative [BAS]. That is, the environmental impact analysis on the Empire Corridor South of the options after [90A] all say: “No additional work within Empire Corridor South, other than that proposed for Alternative 90A, is proposed, …”

The reason is simple, though only stated clearly in the Alternatives Screening Analysis in Table C: “Existing 110 mph speed maintained Hudson‐Albany‐Schenectady” ~ which is to say that the Empire Corridor South from Hudson through to Schenectady is already a 110mph corridor.

Indeed, when looked at in light of the primary transport services that the Empire Corridor presently provides – connecting Albany to NYC an then connecting the cities of the Empire Corridor West to NYC – this is not the only funny thing in this report. Another comes up with we include some of the screened out alternatives:

  • Option: Average Speed, Capital Cost, Annual O&M Subsidy, projected ridership. description
  • [BAS]: 53mph, $0.35b, $4.43m, 1.6m trips. Baseline, including already funded upgrades)
  • [79A]: 55mph, $1.5b, ($26.36m), 2.1m trips. Reliability improvements, current level of service
  • [79B]: 59mph, $2.0b, $18.46m, 2.2m trips. 79A and doubling BUF/NYC to eight round trips
  • [90A]: 60mph, $2.5b, $14.41m, 2.3m trips. Same as 79A, but signaling upgraded to support 90mph Maximum Allowed Speed where feasible in alignment, with corresponding crossing upgrades;
  • [90B]: 64mph, $9.9b, $7.81m, 2.6m trips. Takes 90A and adds a dedicated 90mph MAS passenger track to Empire West Corridor, with some 90mph fourth track for passenger trains to cross paths;
  • [110]: 67mph, $10.8b, ($0.92m), 2.8m trips. Similar to 90B, but built for 110mph, including greater track separation, and longer sections of fourth track
  • [125]: 74mph, $27b, $95.03m, 3.2m trips. Largely new alignment, electrified, including more frequencies, including services on existing corridor in stops not on the new alignment

After screening, the sole alternative that generates a surplus of ticket revenue over operating and maintenance costs is the 110mph alternative … with a capital cost of $10.8b, which seems likely to be considered out of reach of New York State on its own, so that if the 110mph version is chosen, this would ensure that the Empire Corridor West improvement plan can be indefinitely postponed until there is a “regime change” in Washington, DC.

However, among the excluded alternatives, and hidden from view in Appendix C, alternative [79A] had an estimated capital cost of $1.5b, and a projected surplus of ticket revenue over operating and maintenance costs of $26m.

Suppose we capitalize the capital costs over 20 years at an interest rate of 6%, and then add the annual operating subsidy or subtract the annual operating surplus. Also, conservatively, assume steady state ridership at the conclusion of the 20 years. That yields two numbers: the net annual capital & operating subsidy over 20 years, then the ongoing surplus/subsidy:

  • [BAS], 53mph, net $35m annually, then $4.4m subsidy
  • [79A], 55mph, net $104m annually, then $26m surplus
  • [79B], 59mph, net $192m annually, then $18m subsidy
  • [90A], 60mph, net $232m annually, then $14m subsidy
  • [90B], 64mph, net $871m annually, then $8m subsidy
  • [110], 67mph, net $941m annually, then $1m surplus
  • [125], 74mph, net $2.35b annually, then $95m subsidy

What kind of alchemy is going on? It’s very simple. In developing alternatives, there are five patterns of service, but only one pattern of service is considered for most cases:

  • The existing services, at 79mph ([BAS] and [79A]);
  • A package of eight services BUF/NYC, and 16 services ALB/NYC ([79B], [90A], [90B], and [110])
  • A package of express services on the new 125mph corridor services, plus heavily subsidized local services on the existing corridor
  • The package of services envisioned for the 220mph corridor also screened out in the alternatives analysis.

The package of eight services BUF/NYC an 16 services ALB/NYC is, evidently, best suited to operating over the 110mph alternative. However, simply fixing the current state of constant delays and uncertainty over on time performance with the current slate of services, yields an operating surplus.

Which strongly suggests that there is a package of improved services between four BUF/NYC per day and eight BUF/NYC per day which would allows the 90mph options to also generate an operating surplus … and could well generate even stronger operating surpluses for the 110mph option.

And this is the sleight of hand in this alternatives analysis: a rigid application of a single approach to scheduling which provides far more services on the Empire Corridor West than is justified by the ridership attracted by the improvements, and which masks the surplus generated by increasing the frequency of the NYC/Albany corridor.


So, why would anyone want to slow walk such a rigged choice of alternatives?

So, why would anyone want to slow walk such a rigged choice of alternatives? Well, to answer that, consider why someone would rig the choice of alternative. If you are rigging the choice of alternatives to push the answer to a solution with a larger capital cost and a modest but positive operating surplus … you are doing that because you expect somebody else to be paying the capital cost.

But thanks to the Republicans in Congress over the past six years, there hasn’t been anybody handing out large capital subsidies to allow state departments of transportation to implement their “wish list” upgrade in in-state corridor services.

And this, from a “power politics” perspective, makes the whole exercise rather pointless. It will generate a result, and that result, whatever it may be, will then be an ongoing minor political headache. “When are you going to move toward implementing the recommended HSR alternative?”

However, this is a federally funded study, to the tune of $4m. There is an eight year deadline on spending this money. And that deadline falls due at the end of September, this year. So may as well release the conclusions.

So as to the question in the essay title: I don’t know. Governor Cuomo certainly has not pushed for improvements in New York State intercity rail service … despite his original campaign pledges to do so. He seems to have never completed appointments to the “temporary high speed rail planning board”, established in 2010 for a three year period to advise the State Department of Transportation. It does not seem as if the board ever met.

But whether he intervened to slow down the process, or simply walked away from the process with a slow walk being the natural working pace of the division responsible … I have no empirical basis to juge.

However, if someone was to pick this up who was serious about it … hidden in the high weeds of the technical appendices at the back of the EIS are real improvements that can be made within New York State’s resources:

  • Invest in the [79A] package of reliability improvements, eliminating an average of one hour of delays in Empire Corridor services between NYC and Buffalo, with an additional twenty minutes benefit on top
  • Take advantage of the reliability upgrade to add a returning NYC / Niagara Falls service, leaving NYC at 6am, getting to Albany 8:45am and Buffalo by 1:30pm, returning through Buffalo at 4pm, Albany at 9:05pm, and NYC at 11:35pm.
  • And upgrade the dedicated Albany/NYC services to a net 12-16 services per day, based on the service level that best meets the ridership generated by the investments already underway, as well as the spill-over benefit of improved On Time Performance of Empire Corridor West services also serving Albany/NYC.


Conclusions & Conversations

I would caution against concluding that the New York State Department of Transportation deliberately rigged the conclusions in the draft EIS. While the conclusions are clearly rigged, it is perfectly conceivable that they were rigged by group think within the responsible division. It is, after all, much easier to adjust a 110mph MAS corridor timetable which doubles frequency of service to both Buffalo and Albany to fit the modeled operating conditions on the track for 90mph and 79mph and substantially more work to consider a range of different service improvements, looking at the operating surplus generated by each. That is especially the case when the scheduling of some of the services is not entirely under your control, as is the case of the Ethan Allen (which not only runs into Vermont, but also connects with the Vermonter to provide connections through to Washington on the NEC) and the Lakeshore Ltd, which includes a substantial layover delay in Albany due to collecting cars from the Boston leg of the split service.

But whether the rigging is deliberate or unintentional, it is rigged. It was, indeed, flawed according to its own stated objectives, which included minimizing disruption of freight rail service, where the rejected alternative [79A] (along with the never-considered 79mph alternatives with 25% or 50% increase in NYC/BUF frequency) clearly would cause less disruption to freight rail service than any of the alternatives taken up for further consideration.

But as we move through four years of uncertain transportation policy, which seems likely to be frequently overshadowed by the controversy of the day, if there is an opportunity for New York State to move ahead with upgrades of the Empire Corridor which are within its reach and which will generate operating surpluses on the corridor, then in my view, NYS should seize the chance.

If the day should come that the bigger investments may be made in the corridor … including under the Sustainable Steel Interstate approach which I will be picking up again next week … then NYS can dust off this plan, upgrade it with the experience of operating a more reliable, more effective transport system on the corridor, and hopefully work through an analysis which is not as flawed as the current one promises to be.

Remember that there is no such thing as an “off topic” issue on sustainable energy and transportation in the Sunday Train comment threads … feel free to drop a comment on any sustainable energy or transportation issue, and not just the topic of the essay of this week.