The Western New York region has witnessed some remarkable progress recently in redeveloping underutilized properties, cultivating historic preservation and growing the Buffalo-Niagara Medical Campus
, but at the same time its public transportation options are receding. Over the past year, the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority
(NFTA) proposed extensive cuts to its Metro Rail and Bus services, only to walk those back in the face of strong community opposition in exchange for higher fares. And while the agency's position on expanding the limited Metro Rail network has improved under new Executive Director Kimberley A. Minkel, there is still no definitive path to making the rail system more extensive in the short term.
Borrowing the phrase that embodies the refreshed momentum and activity on the Canalside district
, there may be a lighter, cheaper and quicker way to expand rail options in the region. Specifically, developing a new commuter rail service between downtown Buffalo and the under-construction intermodal transportation center in Niagara Falls could likely be implemented on a smaller scale, require less capital and operating investment and be deployed on a much faster timeline than extensions of Metro Rail light rail, even through such expansions to Amherst, the Tonawandas, the Airport and the Southtowns are needed and would be beneficial, as the NFTA already has one of the most extensive collections of rail right-of-way for future service. (The ongoing work of the Citizens Regional Transit Corp
., provides excellent information and advocacy on Metro Rail expansion issues).
Before considering the options and opportunities for commuter rail in Western New York, it is important to note the gradually shifting understanding of what this mode of passenger rail service entails. If the term commuter rail means anything to Western New Yorkers currently, it's perhaps a vision of suit-and-briefcase-clad office workers like Pete Cooper of Mad Men
heading out of Manhattan, Boston or Chicago on the 5:15 train. And for hundreds of thousands of daily commuters in East Coast metropolises, the Chicagoland region and - perhaps surprisingly - San Francisco and Los Angeles, commuter rail continues to fulfill that important role.
But elsewhere, rail services comprised of a locomotive hauling a train of passenger coaches on routes between 30 and 100 miles - which distinguishes commuter trains from local rail transit like the NFTA's Metro Rail light rail or the New York City Subway - are taking on a new and more regional identity. For instance, the New Mexico Rail Runner Express
(photo right) - connecting Santa Fe, Albuquerque and Belen - caters to not only daily commuters but also provides mid-day, reverse-commute and weekend service, which attracts students, tourists, seniors and shoppers seeking an easy way to get around central New Mexico without a car. Meanwhile, the Orlando region - hardly a bastion of the workaday commuter - is currently building the SunRail system
, which will link communities north and south of Orlando with a new way to reach multiple medical campuses, commercial centers and area attractions. Other similar examples have emerged in places like Seattle
and Dallas-Fort Worth
. So, perhaps regional rail would be a more apt description for the growing flexibility and adaptability of the mode.
Regional rail between Buffalo and Niagara Falls has been proposed for decades, and saw a period of promise under former Erie County Executive Joel Giambra, and is currently a part of the region's long-term transportation investment plan through the Greater Buffalo Niagara Regional Transportation Commission
. Used locomotives and passenger coaches could be acquired cheaply from other operators and Amtrak is currently upgrading its rolling stock (PDF
). Alternatively, new engines and railcars could offer an exciting new image for public transit in the region and establish a distinct identity for the service.
Meanwhile, the rail line between the two cities is lightly-used by owner CSX Transportation for freight traffic, and exclusively by Amtrak's four daily roundtrip trains between the International Railroad Bridge in Black Rock and downtown Buffalo. The route has plenty of capacity to handle more frequent service, which was built to high standards by the legendary New York Central Railroad
, including full grade separation in the cities of Buffalo, Tonawanda and Niagara Falls and only a handful of crossings in the Town of Tonawanda, North Tonawanda and Wheatfield. That allows for higher average speeds and safer operations.
Adding new momentum for passenger rail options in the region is the new Amtrak station
at the old customs facility on Main Street in Niagara Falls (lead image), which will replace the current industrial and utilitarian structure off of Lockport Road in 2013. Already, across the Whirlpool Bridge, Toronto's GO Train
commuter rail system provides several daily trips on summer weekends to the Niagara Falls, Ont., rail station and is considering a more regular level of service in the future. VIA Rail Canada trains also serve the corridor
, along with Amtrak's daily Maple Leaf
between New York City and Toronto. Substantial obstacles remain to more frequent cross-border rail service, however, most notably the customs and immigration process necessary for travelling between the United States and Canada.
In downtown Buffalo, the current Exchange Street station is hardly a welcoming introduction to the city, but is only steps away from the bustling and growing activity at Canalside, as well as Metro Rail light-rail trains on Main Street. A new station in Buffalo would only add to the appeal of a regional rail system as well as current Amtrak service. The same tracks also extend to Central Terminal (photo below), which is in the midst of its own repatriation and renaissance through the heroic work of the Central Terminal Restoration Corporation
^Photo: Those Idiots - Central Terminal Restoration Corporation
Mid-line stops in North Buffalo, the Town of Tonawanda and the Twin Cities - the latter leveraging the encouraging signs of revitalization through the destinations such as the Remington Lofts
and Riviera Theatre
- would generate additional ridership and have the potential to foster additional transit-oriented development projects in those areas. In the future, additional lines could establish a true regional rail network, connecting Buffalo with Rochester, Erie, Jamestown, Salamanca and potentially Detroit, only 250 miles away via Ontario.
^Remington Tavern and Oyster Bar @ Remington Lofts
The region could go down two different paths to arrange governmental support and funding for such a project. It could decide to provide investment for the project - for locomotives, railcars, stations, signals and liability coverage for CSX - using only local and state funds. That route would eliminate the need to compete for federal funds with similar projects across the nation as well as a far more laborious environmental and engineering approval process. The New Mexico Rail Runner Express as well as the COASTER service
north of San Diego were both supported only through state and local funding, and were among the most cost-effective and rapidly-implemented commuter rail projects in the U.S. Alternatively, federal funding to help support new commuter rail projects is provided through the Federal Transit Administration's New Starts program
. Although New Starts could potentially contribute half of the project's capital costs - with the remainder through state and local investment - the bureaucratic process required to receive those funds takes years and affords no guarantee of a grant award due to intense competition between communities. Regardless of the funding path undertaken, the Greater Buffalo-Niagara Regional Transportation Council would take the lead in conducting the planning process and securing funds, while the NFTA would likely administer and potentially operate the service, given it would be contained in its service areas in Erie and Niagara counties. The NFTA could also choose to contract operations with CSX, Amtrak or an outside, third-party operator.
Regional rail within the Buffalo-Niagara Falls corridor would reinforce many of the positive dynamics underway in Western New York. It would leverage existing infrastructure, utilize affordable equipment, could be implemented in a relatively short time frame - New Mexico went from plans to service on its Rail Runner Express in under five years - and introduce even greater activity to the urban cores of the region's largest population and commercial centers.
Rich Sampson - born and raised in Buffalo - is the Editor of RAIL Magazine, a quarterly publication focused on the resurgence of passenger rail in North America and published by the national, non-profit Community Transportation Association of America based in Washington, D.C. RAIL Magazine's most recent issue was an extensive profile of commuter and regional rail in emerging communities. Rich also posts on passenger rail topics on the magazine's Potomac Express blog. His opinions here do not reflect the views of his employer.