Author: Seth Triggs
For a large portion of Buffalo’s existence, the city has been an important transportation hub. While Buffalo is well-known as the terminus of the Erie Canal, a slightly more obscure fact is that the city was a major railroad hub. Indeed, for various periods of time, Buffalo was the second most important railroad hub after Chicago. We can see these vestiges of that glorious railroad history throughout our community, whether in the numerous overbuilt railway overpasses, or tracks and routes lying fallow for decades.
Eventually, that heritage largely built by steam gave way to dieselization, and efficiencies along with railroad contraction reduced Buffalo’s importance in railroading. Tracks were ripped up, and one by one the great passenger railroads divested their assets, and eventually those assets became what we now know as Amtrak.
Over the years, at the mercy of government disfavor in funding, and increasing priority given to freight traffic, passenger rail in the United States suffered. Eventually many cities lost their Amtrak service altogether, having it supplanted with bus shuttles to distant cities. Others retained once-daily service, a shadow of what was available in the past.
Buffalo has lucked out in comparison to other such cities.
Buffalo has lucked out in comparison to other such cities; unusually it retained both Amtrak stations and has fairly high service for a city not located in the Northeast Corridor. But even this relative fortune has come with some cost.
The current logistical and convenience situation of Buffalo’s rail service is part of this legacy as well. Buffalo’s two stations have different stories, and different levels of access: the 1950 Exchange Street Station is a downsized replacement for a larger historic New York Central Terminal, the lands of which are largely replaced by the I-190 viaduct. The Depew station, by contrast, is a late 1970s utilitarian structure, common to many built in New York State at the time, almost all replacing grand stations. Indeed, the Depew station replaced service for the Buffalo Central Terminal in 1979, providing plenty of access for suburbanites possessing automobiles, but tenuous connection to the city for those traveling to or from points west. This, unfortunately, resulted in the station’s abandonment, a fate that has only recently begun to be reversed.
The Exchange Street station, on the other hand, is relatively well connected with the urban fabric. The station certainly is within walking distance of downtown attractions, even as its setting and context is particularly intimidating. The mid-1950s I-190 viaduct looms over the property, necessitating floodlights in order to counteract the loss of natural light for the station. The station is bereft of ornamentation, set back from Exchange Street itself by a modest parking lot and bus stop.
Riding the Wave of a New Trend
In recent years, passenger rail in the United States has had a resurgence, with passenger numbers going up. New service improvements have been made on the busier corridors to capture this. The bulk of the attention has been on the Northeast Corridor, where train service along the corridor is competitive with air travel.
Buffalo is also located on a corridor, the Empire Corridor, which allows several trains a day. This access allows passengers to take advantage of the service to destinations beyond. Cities along the Empire Corridor have upgraded their station infrastructure to take advantage, whether by extensive renovation (Utica), or brand-new stations (Syracuse, Rochester, Niagara Falls and Albany). Indeed, virtually every corridor city aside from Buffalo has taken on the work of improving their station infrastructure.
While many things have changed about railroading, one thing that has not has been the relative efficiency of fuel per passenger. The benefit only increases when the train is electrically powered. This is of utmost importance as the world faces the threat of global climate change and must take critical steps to reduce emissions.
As Buffalo grows in popularity—with more tourists and desire for connections elsewhere—it’s certainly a great opportunity to improve our rail service, and provide proper rail gateways for those traveling by rail. Thankfully, our city has excellent locations to serve as proper gateways; gateways that will realize spinoff benefits and community resurgence similarly to other projects in other cities upstate.
The Central Terminal: Perfect Logistics
The crown jewel of the plan is the reuse of Central Terminal as the main intercity station. This is not an unprecedented arrangement; Amtrak service would have served both it and Exchange Street until the Central Terminal’s closure. The benefits for this are clear. First and foremost, the restoration of train service creates a stable, anchoring tenant for the structure. With an anchor, we are provided an opportunity for other transportation modes to connect. In addition, the investment in the facility allows for private developers to tack on and further leverage the property for compatible uses. One of the popular trends nationwide is adaptive reuse; the conversion of former commercial and industrial buildings into mixed use spaces; often residential and office, but some have also been commercial. Even the examples in Buffalo have become numerous. Indeed, currently a developer has expressed interest in developing the Central Terminal, including the surrounding vacant buildings.
The other benefit is operational. The Central Terminal is the last possible westbound station; from this point trains headed for Cleveland and Chicago will turn south to parallel Lake Erie. It would then be possible to have through-train service in the city of Buffalo again, providing vital access to Boston, New York City and Chicago.
Historic platforms exist and could potentially be reused, especially if a bridge is reestablished over the Belt Line tracks. A modern structure as pictured could be used to supplement that platform-level access, similarly to what is done in Utica and Albany.
Canalside: Righting a Wrong
Recently, the Exchange Street Station has fallen into disrepair. The station, about the size of a modest house, has most recently suffered a ceiling collapse. Under normal conditions, amenities for passengers are few; the station lobby is only open during daytime hours. Passengers taking the first train of the day around 3:30 a.m. have little shelter available, no benches and no restroom access.
Unlike the Depew station, the Exchange Street Station has better transit access. The station is about 500 feet from Erie Canal Harbor Station of the Metro Rail (and Canalside), and the frequent #24 bus stops virtually at the door.
While the condition of the station is dire, there are locations near it presenting great opportunities, especially with the popularity of adaptive reuse. Adaptive reuse was already used to great effect with the Donovan Building, transforming it into the Phillips Lyttle LLP headquarters along with a Courtyard by Marriott hotel. It can be similarly used for the currently vacant One Seneca Tower. Already a deal was closed that would be promising for the tower. But what if there were another usage for the ground floor—a way to activate the street? The possibilities are numerous.
Pictured here is one such Canalside station concept, using the ground floor and a portion of One Seneca’s basement for a new Amtrak stop. Part of the rail tunnel parallel to Exchange Street can be accessed and a new cap put on it to create an airy, yet protected enclosed station platform. The station can be built such that a weatherproof passageway can be provided to Canalside and Erie Canal Harbor Station, and draft fans can take diesel exhaust out of the facility. This is not the only solution—it is an idea, after all—but this is something that can be studied to determine the cost and feasibility.
Connection means we can have both
The last piece of the puzzle is a strong transit link between the Canalside area and the Central Terminal, to ensure that those visiting from points beyond Buffalo (such as the airport and points west) can conveniently reach Downtown without needing to use a car. This is why the Central Terminal is the midpoint of the Airport Corridor of Metro Rail, allowing a seamless link between Downtown and the airport. And all along the line, development opportunities will be afforded just as they have been in the other cities using light rail transit.
By beginning to plan now and think outside of the box, we will have a “shovel ready” project that can be funded by many different schemes. But the community needs to see a plan, so it can be championed. Already there is great enthusiasm in the community for greater rail service, including the Airport Corridor. Let’s leverage the new stations and new transit service and provide yet another feather in Buffalo’s cap.