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NY state eyes study's high-speed rail proposals, plans 6 upstate public meetings in March

ALBANY, N.Y. - New York transportation officials are setting up public hearings to discuss options for an idea that has been kicked around for years but has yet to leave the station: high-speed passenger rail service.

Boosting the speeds of trains travelling Amtrak's Empire Corridor between New York City and Niagara Falls has been the goal of industry leaders, elected officials and transit advocates for two decades. Progress may be coming down the line now that the state Department of Transportation and the Federal Railroad Administration have scheduled hearings next month in six upstate cities along the 463-mile corridor.

New York was required to conduct the environmental review to be eligible for any new federal funding for high-speed rail, according to DOT spokesman Beau Duffy.

"It has taken longer than anyone had wanted, but we're happy this draft is out and the hearings are scheduled," said Bruce Becker of East Amherst, president of the Empire State Passengers Association, a passenger rail advocacy group.

The public meetings will be held between March 4 and March 14, starting in Albany and followed by Syracuse, Buffalo, Rochester, Utica and Poughkeepsie. The public will have the opportunity to view displays and question experts about the plans.

The environmental review analyzes the five most viable higher-speed options for trains with top operating speeds of 79, 90, 110 and 125 mph. The current top speed allowed west of Schenectady is 79 mph, although the study said the current average speed for Amtrak trains travelling between Buffalo and Albany barely tops 50 mph. Trains travelling between Albany and Manhattan can go as fast as 110 mph along some stretches.

The costs of the plans range from $1.7 billion to $6.2 billion, with the most expensive calling for construction of a third track dedicated to passenger trains travelling the 273 miles between Schenectady and the Amtrak station in Depew, just east of Buffalo. That plan, favoured by Beck's group, would also add a fourth passenger track over a combined distance of nearly 40 miles in five separate locations.

Once the state selects its option, the FRA must sign off on the plan, which isn't expected to happen for an additional six months to a year, Duffy said.

Amtrak must share existing rail lines with CSX freight trains that are given track priority, a situation that frequently causes delays for the passenger trains. The main east-west choke point is the single track that runs between Albany and Schenectady. Upgrades to that 17-mile existing stretch were completed in December, while work on a new second track between the two cities is expected to begin this year, Duffy said.

New York's efforts at high-speed rail, or at least higher-speed service, have not succeeded in the past. In December 2012, the state auctioned off surplus train cars and other rail equipment from a failed project to improve service between Albany and New York City. The state bought the trains and related gear in 1998, during the Pataki administration, to test higher-speed service along the Hudson River. Technical problems and the inability of the tracks to support the faster trains sidelined the project.

State officials say high-speed trains can boost tourism and economic development in the upstate region, as well as reduce highway traffic and pollution. Improving Amtrak's on-time record and increasing the frequency of trains running between Manhattan and Buffalo would move New York state much closer to that goal, Becker said.

"Folks are using Amtrak," Becker said. "With improvement in reliability and shorter trip times, we feel more and more folks will pick Amtrak over flying to New York City or driving."

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