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Lessons From Lausanne, Switzerland

By Michael R Weekes:

In November, I traveled to Lausanne Switzerland for a two-week vacation.  I didn’t know I’d find so many lessons that Buffalo can leverage as it becomes ‘what it will be’.  I encourage us all to look at Buffalo from the outside and see what other successful cities do to achieve and retain tourism and a higher quality of life.

Part 1 – Take The Train!

In Lausanne, I could take a driver-less metro down the five minute trip from the Chuv Hospital Station to the Train Station every seven minutes.  I loved the Lausanne Train Station.  It was full of life, activity, and trains that represented a way to anywhere in the world: Paris, Montreaux, Italy or Germany, every 15 minutes!  All trains were 100% on time and travel was pricey, but fair.

It reminded me of my hometown Buffalo and its historic second place, only to Chicago as one of America’s big rail hub cities of the past.

Green-Roof-Buffalo-NY-1.jpg
^Photo: Lausanne metro station – note organic roof garden

Although I live in Buffalo, I work for a consulting firm in Rochester, located in the High Falls Historic Site, sitting just across from the Genesee Brewery and the Amtrak train station.  The CSX freight trains remind us daily of past and present economic life in America.  I had dismissed train travel in the United States after a recent trip from Washington, DC to Charlestown, VA where the cars seemed dirty, in disrepair and absent of employees interested in meeting my needs as a passenger.

After a recent trip to Switzerland, with its train stations, metro rails and electric-powered bus lines, I had a fresh perspective on what train service in America might offer.

After investigating the Amtrak website, and realizing that there were no less than three daily trains between Buffalo and Rochester, as part of service from Toronto, ON to New York City, I decided to reconsider the option.  The trip was a mere 1:06 and started in Toronto, so the chances of delay were minimal, a major concern.  The cost was competitive at $19.00 USD coach and a whopping $31.00 USD for first class.

I decided to make an adventure out of it in my mind.  Like some kind of twenty-first urban orienteer I made the commitment, took the Number 7 Baynes/Richmond bus downtown at 6:40 am, arrived ten minutes later blocks from coffee and a breakfast sandwich and walked in the 10 degree windy streets of downtown Buffalo to buy my ticket.

To my surprise the ticket office was open at 6:50 am, the ticket was the same price as online and the train was right on time!  I ate my snack, and waited outside in the cold, like some crazy person so I could hear the train blow its whistle as it strolled into the Exchange Street Station.

Weekes-Mike-Buffalo.jpgThe conductor had a newspaper from Canada with him and instead of tossing it on the ground, he nailed me right in the chest with it.  I was shocked!  He couldn’t have done it if he had tried – it was that natural.  I boarded and was further surprised by the conditions of my coach class seat.  It looked brand new!  There was as much space as any business class plane seat, there was more fresh hot coffee and any array of unhealthy snacks at my disposal one car away.  The first class seats were leather and slightly larger, but offered no real advantage.

The train left within minutes of schedule and slowly crept up to 79 miles an hour, after a stop in Depew to pick up suburban-Buffalonians.

The wintery scene flashed by, with ice crystals on the window, small farms and forest after forest and ponds to enjoy.  Before I knew it the conductor announced, “Five Minutes to Rochester!”  Again, right on time.

The biggest challenge was finding my way from the Amtrak station, a mere eighth of a mile from my High Falls office.  I had to take a detour through the Genesee Brewery to a terrific pedestrian walkway across the Genesee River with the most magnificent view of the High Falls.  It was plowed, unlike the city streets on the station side of the river.  I stopped to warm up at Spin Coffee and here I write this tale.

So, it worked, I’m alive.  I’m on-time, ready to work, a mere 90 minute after I left the house on Breckenridge, in Buffalo!

Whether visiting Rochester from Buffalo, or vice versa, I encourage you to take the train and make a day out of it.  Go see a play or concert or get a garbage Plate at Nick Tahoe’s.  Or plan a trip to Pearl Street Grille and Brewery. Explore, trust the public transportation system.  You pay for, you might as well!

Michael R Weekes is author of Everything is a Process, President of Whataboutquality LLC and Co-founder of Fandemoneum Sports Museum.  He returned to Buffalo after 25 years of rambling the high tech trains of America.

Written by WCPerspective

WCPerspective

Buffalo and development junkie currently exiled in California.

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  1. The point about the frequency of trains in Europe is so key. There’s a lot of money being spent on “high speed rail” in the US lately, but I think it would be better to simply invest in more locomotives and train cars so as to run more frequencies. A train every 30 minutes would do much more to change people’s attitudes towards train travel than just increasing the top speed of the one daily train from 80 mph to 110 mph.
    I’d love to take a train to Cleveland (it’s only 3 hours away) but there is only one option right now and it leaves Buffalo at midnight and arrives in Cleveland at 3 AM.
    Thanks for the little Amtrak travelogue, too. I’ve taken the same train from Exchange Street to Rochester, and it’s a very pleasant trip, and drops you off right in downtown Rochester.

  2. Spot on from someone who has just taken around 10 train rides between different cities all around Germany. Trains are easily the most relaxing and enjoyable way to travel. Experiencing a functioning transportation as well as other aspects of life outside the US is something more people should do. Glad you had fun and took amtrak and the train!

  3. nice piece!
    i’ve had bad moments on amtrak but i’ve also had delightful ones. flying has become so unpleasant that i use rail wherever possible. the landscapes along tracks are far more interesting than what the thruway offers. you can get up and walk around. you can plug in electronic devices. you have meaningful leg room. you can hang out in the cafe car and get a card game going. try that behind the wheel or in a plane.
    too many people dismiss amtrak (and buses, for that matter) as beneath their dignity. it is one of the stupider forms of vanity out there.

  4. Regarding the amtrak to Rochester: I would take it much more often if it was more affordable! I go to Rochester once or twice a month to bring my daughter to the Strong Museum of Play, which is less than a mile from the amtrak station, but it costs a family of three almost $100 round trip!

  5. i think about the comparison of these two cities often (i went there 2 years ago). the activity and density with a population that size is amazing.

  6. Actually there are 4 trains from WNY.
    The Lake Shore Limited only stops in Depew. Unfortunately, the track arrangement of the Exchange St station does not allow for thru NYC-Chicago trains to visit downtown without a reverse move.
    As far as the eastbound Maple Leaf being unlikely to be delayed, well. . . I would disagree with that. Train 64 frequently gets tied up at the boarder, I would not suggest it to anyone. Nor would I suggest taking the Lake Shore Limited eastbound – the trip from Chicago makes it more vulnerable to delays.

  7. Great article. I wish more people would take the train instead of riding solo in their cars. Your points about how surprised you were with the service in the US is a testament to how different the transportation culture is in Europe and the US.
    In the US, the car is a part of our subculture and is often seen as an extension of who we are. This is especially true for the baby boomer generation and the post boomer generation, less true for Generation X and New Millenials, but still valid none the less. Americans derive power and prestige from the cars they own and drive, there is no perceived power or prestige in taking the train. Just the opposite in America, where many people see mass transit as transportation for the poor, students, and the elderly. This goes for the metro buses, greyhound, shuttle buses between UB campuses, etc. Many people see taking public transportation as a negative, they are “stuck” taking the bus. This mentality is changing, but it is still very much a major theme in our American life.
    Take a look at the differences in American and European cars (and houses, but that is a different topic). The average American SUV has a 3.5 – 4.0 liter engine, cars have 2.2 – 2.8 liter engines. Cars in Europe often have a 1.2 – 1.8 liter engine, over half the cars are diesel, and over 60% are considered compact cars, compare this with less than 25% of American cars. Most middle class families in America own 2 or more cars, compared with less than 35% of Western Europeans who own a car at all.
    We have significant challenges to overcome if we want to change our culture. Take a look at the number of movies, tv shows, songs, advertisements, etc that involve cars in America. Look at the subtext and subculture they denote. Affluence, fun, ethnicity, age, style, looks, etc, are all expressed in the car you drive in America. It is a status symbol as much as it is a means of transportation.
    We need to evaluate this aspect of our culture if we ever expect people to get out of their cars (or even share their cars) and start using public transportation more often.

  8. Much like grad94, I have had my fair share of pleasant and unpleasant experiences on Amtrak. The one thing that I am often dumbstruck by are the inefficiencies and unreliability of our current rail system – however, I am also struck in a similar way when flying.
    I travel to Japan frequently and am always impressed with their use of rail in their overall transportation philosophy. Their trains, even the commuter rails between Yokohama and Tokyo, are reliable, frequent, and clean. Couple this with Shinkansen and city to city transportation is not only a bargain, but pleasant. All of this beats driving by a longshot, which can be a very thrilling, but damn frightening experience.
    The interesting thing is that most of their rail is privately developed and maintained (of course there are subsidies). There are a number of semiprivate lines as well (those co-owned and operated by a provate company and the government). Despite this, these lines typically operate in the green or break even. Amtrak, as currently operated, is a money pit that can only stay afloat through the charity of the American people’s taxes – but then again, I would argue this is true of every mode of transportation we currently use. If the government funding were evenly applied to all options I think there would be more private industry interest in passenger rail. Overall this would benefit the government (and the tax payers) by reducing their economic burden on development, maintenance, and operation of these proposed rail lines and would benefit industry, and ideally workers, by creating jobs not completely on the public’s payroll.
    Great article and please pardon my “shooting from the hip” response.

  9. There are plenty of Americans who use public transportation and do not own cars. I know many in Chicago, Boston, and NY that do this. Buffalo is a car city, bottom line. The metro rail gets you no where. Also look at how Boston, NY, Philly, and DC are connected by trains that are used frequently. If you yearn for the train lifestyle, just move to another part of the country or to Europe.

  10. It does get a bit expensive for day trips, but there are a few ways to get a discount. AAA members get 10% off. Members of the National Association of Railroad Passengers (basically a lobbying group for improved rail in the US) get 10% off. Seniors get 15% off. And right now there is a 20% off discount for trips within New York State until the end of May 2011. Use discount code V557.
    That last discount would bring your family of three down to $76 roundtrip. That is really not that unrealistic of a price if you consider the IRS mileage rate for business travel (which is an estimate of the average total cost of owning and maintaining a car) is 50 cents a mile. For the 150 miles roundtrip between here and Rochester, that works out to $75!

  11. According to Wikipedia, the population density of Lausanne is pretty close to that of Buffalo (~7000 people per square mile).
    Maybe people in Lausanne spend more time out and about rather than inside their homes? Perhaps the perceived activity and vibrancy of a city have less to do with population density and more to do with the cultural tendency towards public vs private recreation.

  12. Yeah, the Empire Service trains start in Niagara Falls, NY and are more likely to be on time than the Maple Leaf from Toronto (even though there is a lot of padding built into the latter’s schedule).
    I’ve taken the eastbound Lake Shore Limited from Chicago twice this year, and both times we were within 30 minutes of scheduled arrival in Depew, which I consider on par with airlines.

  13. the actual density of buildings and living spaces there is what is creating the vibrancy. there are no ‘broken teeth’ between buildings, no parking lot deserts, and nearly every building is at least 5 stories tall, and fairly uniform in there styles. also, most of the streets were fairly narrow. all of it created a great sense of space. just a wonderful city. its wine country too.

  14. Do I really have to trot out my standard “train to nowhere” response?
    The Metro Rail gets you to:
    The University at Buffalo, the University Heights commercial district, Sisters Hospital, Medaille College, Canisius College, the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus (including Roswell Park Cancer Institute and Buffalo General Hospital), the Allentown commercial district, the theater district, the Chippewa entertainment district, about six hotels, the city’s central business district (home to over 60,000 jobs), the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center, City Hall, the courts, Thursday in the Square concerts, Erie Community College, Coca Cola Field, HSBC Arena, the Erie Canal Harbor, and (to bring this full circle to the topic of the article) the Exchange Street Amtrak station.
    I guess all of those places count as “nowhere”?

  15. Wonderful article.
    I think the success in Europe and in other cities is the effective central hub of transportation. The NFTA building is not near the exchange street train station or the central terminal. There needs to be a central building downtown if there is to be any hope for success.
    As much as I love the central terminal, we need a rail/bus hub Downtown.

  16. you build users by buildings infrastructure. There are high ridership in city’s that have high levels of infrastructure. Buffalo’s train to “no where” gets about 25,000 people on it every day… for 6 miles it is actually one of the highest used lines in all of the US. If it extended to North Campus and Amherst \ Airport… we would get even more ridership.

  17. By nowhere, do you mean the train that starts at a major league sports arena at the waterfront, proceeds through the area’s highest density employment center runs along the edge of the area’s most populous neighborhoods, passes by a major medical and research center, then on on past 2 colleges and another large hospital and finally to end at a large public university? Is that the train you are talking about? Do you mean that since it does not go into the suburbs and has one of the larger ridership/mile levels in the country that it goes nowhere?
    I am not saying that metro rail should not be expanded (it should) but this commonly accepted claim that it goes nowhere needs to be challenged as being quite false. Just saying something is true does not make it so.

  18. Hey Michael, I love this! I’ve also commuted by train back and forth between Buffalo and RaChaCha.
    If you’re working in RaChaCha today, stay late if you can. This evening there is a tour (at 6:30) of the new east wing of the Eastman Theater, then a talk (at 7) by the architect, Craig Jensen, whose firm has a Buffalo office and is rehabbing a building in the Larkin District. Maybe I’ll see you there (I’ll be in my black tux).
    More info:
    http://www.esm.rochester.edu/evolution/events.php

  19. just a quick point on DC – it had no rail intracity transit for a number of decades. Although it is obviously a very different animal, the Washington has taken to mass transit quite well.

  20. To get from where I’m sitting to UB’s north campus via Metro Rail/Bus right now would take 2 hours and 55 minutes, with 35 of those waiting for transfers, according to Google. 22 minutes of my time would be spent on Metro Rail. To drive, it would only take 40 minutes, again according to Google.
    The Metro Rail is nice, but doesn’t do me any good without a complete system. I wouldn’t mind having to use buses for the entire trip as long as I can get to where I’m trying to go in a reasonable amount of time compared to alternatives.

  21. Jesse –
    The Maple Leaf has run on time about 2/3 of the time for the past year, and the LSL has run on time about 73%. Both are better than many airlines in the upstate – NYC market, but it isnt exactly European/SE Asia standards either.
    Empire service (the entirety of the route from in NYS) is a pretty respectable almost 90%, thats why I would generally recommend riding 280 & 284 over the other trains eastbound.
    Now, much of the work going into the corridor now (billed as HSR) will likely make that service much more reliable. Adding a platform at Albany, a second track @ Schenectady, among others. Now, a few more trains would certainly help. Particularly since almost all trains were sold out this summer, even with the addition of 2 coaches on the Maple Leaf.

  22. sho’nuff,
    Your car comparison is an interesting one. You could take it further by including the number of people using scooters, electric, and conventional bicycles.

  23. I always wonder how many of those 25,000 daily riders are Buffalo Public School students who ride for free as part of the subsidy they receive for their education. I used to take the train every day to work, and the noise those teenagers made sounded like there had to be at least thousands of them. Also, how many of those 25,000 are people who hop off and on, riding a relatively short distance, downtown where the line is free? I think it would be very easy for the NFTA to inflate the numbers here, because if you ride from the South Campus to downtown at any time of day other than normal commuting hours or when there’s an event at Shea’s or HSBC Arena, then the train is quite empty. That’s based on my own personal experience and observations, and not based on the self reported statistics, so-called facts, on someone’s website.

  24. I love the idea of the U.S. being connected by a rail system comparable to Europe. With all of this administration’s political capital being spent elsewhere I have a hard time believing that high speed rail or rail service that is useful to the masses will will ever be a reality here. At its current state Amtrack is worthless. For me personally taking a train rarely makes sense. If I want to get to NYC quickly I will fly for around $200. I want to go cheaply I will drive for around $70 in gas. Even adding the tolls in its still less than $100. For me there is no advantage to taking a train there. I have very few starting times to chose from. It takes nearly the same amount of time as a car trip does and costs almost the same as a flight. So whats the advantage? I can play cards and get piss drunk? I just don’t see anyone flocking to Amtrack unless there is a drop in price, increase in frequency, and increase in speed.

  25. Apparently the sold out trains all summer from Toronto to NYC were an optical illusion because no one is “flocking to Amtrack [sic]”.

  26. Ill catch you up –
    West of Albany trains were up 37.3% , Hudson Valley trains were up 9.4%, the Lake Shore Limited was up 9.8%.
    NYS ridership was up overall 18%.
    Glad to be of assistance. Please, next time, dont be afraid to ask!

  27. Ill catch you up –
    West of Albany trains were up 37.3% , Hudson Valley trains were up 9.4%, the Lake Shore Limited was up 9.8%.
    NYS ridership was up overall 18%.
    Glad to be of assistance. Please, next time, dont be afraid to ask!

  28. army-
    Japan is an interesting example, and fairly unique in the world as how it develops its rail system. Im not sure if its possible to duplicate that model domestically, but it is important to see how others develop their national network.
    Of course, most of the world does not run their systems in a manner similar to the Japanese, but instead are primarily government owned/financed/built/maintained/improved/staffed (or at least a few of those).
    However, there is an alternative that has been used to build expensive infrastructure world wide: Built – Operate – Transfer agreements. Overly simplifying, these are private – public partnerships for (somewhat obviously) building, operation and then transferring the entire operation to a government entity after the concession expires. The operator gets some or all of the ticket revenues, and perhaps other funding or incentives. After the concession expires the government can assume operator status, seek new bidders to operate the route, or renew/renegotiate with the original bidder.
    The advantage to the government is much lower up front costs. That said, BOT have been somewhat mixed track record, and have sometimes resulted in higher long term costs. Never-the-less, its a possibility worth exploration.
    There are a wide variety of hybrids of this mechanism, and perhaps one could be found to work locally, say on a Toronto – Bflo route. Frankly, I think a NYC – Montreal would be a better fit, but perhaps a TO-Bflo could be a good test bed.
    —-
    Something to note on true HSR. While it does have freaken huge up front costs, there are giant advantages that could be realized in the US. For example, the newest rail lines in China travel at nearly 200 mph AVERAGE speed btwn cities.
    Something like that would put Chicago a 4 or 5 hour train ride from NYC. You cant get from the drop off at Kennedy to getting your stuff off the baggage carousel in O’Hare in 4 hours.

  29. This is interesting information and falls in line with the overall trend observed in Amtrak’s ridership. Since it’s creation in ’71, despite calculated political sabotage (look up Tricky Dicky’s backroom agreements to dismantle Amtrak) and a less than stellar reputation, Amtrak ridershp has steadily increased. This is contrary to the notion many in the anti-rail camp cling to. I think as the baby-boomers and the Cold War mindset they were programed with become less of a force (both politically and economically) America’s attitude towards rail will change.

  30. i’m glad i am not the only person who is annoyed by bro’s lack of picture captioning. they use such great visuals. why can’t they properly credit and id them?

  31. This is an interesting story with a strong, informed string of comments, so I want to take advantage and raise the issue of Amtrak’s bicycle policy on these trains.
    I have long believed that a Buffalo-Rochester Amtrak route should be great for cyclists. Imagine, for example, taking a one- or two-day bike ride along the Canal from Buffalo to Rochester, then catching the train back (or vice-versa). Or, imagine riding the train into Buffalo from Rochester, spending a day or two cycling the bike paths around the city, then catching the train back to Rochester.
    I have asked Amtrak about this sort of thing a number of times over the years, but their official policy makes it very difficult to bring a bicycle onto their upstate NY trains. Has anyone else had this experience? Or, has anyone managed to get a bike on board without breaking it down and packing it up?
    And perhaps most importantly, is there anything we might do (perhaps collectively) to encourage Amtrak to revisit this policy and make it easier for cyclists to combine transport modes here? I know such solutions are working elsewhere, even on the Metro trains, but I have made absolutely no progress on this so far myself. Or is there something I am missing?
    Thanks again for the discussion.

  32. I would love train service to Cleveland and beyond in Ohio. I have family in that area and travel there in winter driving is rough and the planes are expensive and not direct. Train service would be great.

  33. AMTRAK does offer bike racks on some of their trains, I used to use when I was in school in Boston. They charge a $10.00 usage fee per journey and the space is limited, but is usually available on one of the cars on the train. I’ve seen the bike racks on some of the trains in NY when I have gone to Albany, but they won’t let us use them because they don’t have a reservation system.
    I think we should petition Congress and AMTRAK to get them to change their policy. It couldn’t be that hard to get support from clubs and shops around Buffalo and Rochester.
    Here is a link to the official policy in case any one was curious about it. http://www.amtrak.com/servlet/ContentServer?c=Page&pagename=am%2FLayout&cid=1241337895554

  34. “Particularly since almost all trains were sold out this summer, even with the addition of 2 coaches on the Maple Leaf.”
    I meant train 284 (or was it 280?). Sry, I had the Maple Leaf on my mind.

  35. Long distance train travel is 100 yrs away from being bearable in the US. There is no point in taking a train to NYC, you can drive and fly for far less $$ and suffering. Lets not pretend AMTRACK is enjoyable, at all. I took a train once to Tarrytown and it took NINE HOURS!!! I agree with the above, funds should be put towards increasing frequency of trains and available on a city to city basis.
    Long distance train travel will need seperate tracks.
    I don’t think people realize the value that another mode of transportation to get to Buffalo and Niagara from Rochester or Syracuse and maybe Toronto would provide. Increase speeds and availablity of trains on a small scale and further down the line you’ll have demand for trains long term and large scale.
    When you can hop on a train in Downtown Buffalo and be in Niagara Falls within 25 minutes for the day you’ll know we’re heading in the right direction. Same goes for your weekend trip in Toronto, one should be able to get there within 2 hours. No questions asked. It seems that we’re putting the horse before the cart here and akin to the waterfront things needed to be started on a smaller basis.

  36. Has anybody heard anything else about the train tunnel going under Lake Ontario from Youngtown? Not sure how that would go but man that would get there quick

  37. I once took a flight to Houston and got stuck in Chicago for three days. And one time I got stuck in traffic in Syracuse for 2 hours.
    Oh, I thought we were having a transportation non-sequitur contest. Im not sure how a single example devoid of context proves anything. Particularly since ridership is up on the corridor and on time performance is at least comparable to airlines (not a high bar). Further, though regional rail is a great goal, why and how is that different than developing the entire corridor? Why would you stop service @ Rochester? How would that make any sense? I dont really understand your critique at all.
    And when you say long distance travel requires separate tracks, isnt that the current push (in addition to capacity and reliability improvements?

  38. I can’t believe that you compare on time performance for airlines and trains. Airlines have so many more variable to deal with. Those variables are more unpredictable than the variables that trains have to deal with. I would expect huge differences in on time performance for trains, but instead they are barely better than airlines. The other thing is that if a plane is down for maintenance or something the airline is very accommodating and will get you on another flight. When the trains have a problem then everyone is at a standstill until it is fixed.
    Trains are a good solution for trips between cities in the same relative area. A trip from Buffalo to Syracuse or Buffalo to Pittsburgh would be great by train. A trip to Washington DC or NYC or Chicagao or Boston, it is better to fly or drive.

  39. An airplane just has to fly for three or four hours. A train leaves Chicago and arrives in San Francisco two days later, making over a dozen stops on the way. I think there are many more opportunities for a long-distance train to be delayed. Weather, freight traffic, equipment problems, or just people taking too darn long to board the train at any of those many stops. Frankly, I’m rather shocked that long-distance trains actually do manage to arrive on time or just a little late after 50+ hours of travel, all things considered.