By Patrick J. Whalen
SPECIAL TO THE NEWS
Local politicians are about to begin a study to determine the best place to spend at least $25 million of taxpayer money for a new Buffalo train station. This is a classic case of putting the cart before the horse.
$25 million is a lot of money, especially for the benefit of very few people. And we all know that the ultimate cost of a new train station will undoubtedly be a lot more than $25 million by the time it’s finished.
In my current job at the Niagara Global Tourism Institute, we are about to do some sales training with front-desk clerks in Niagara Falls. The idea is to persuade guests at check-in this winter to “Stay Another Night” by providing them free or discounted tickets to Buffalo attractions such as the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Darwin Martin House, Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural Site, etc. To prepare for this, I’ve spent considerable time taking the train to Buffalo and back to Niagara Falls over the past year.
The two Buffalo area stations combined handled an average of 427 passengers a day last year (113 at Exchange Street, known as BFX; and 314 at Depew, known as BUF). That was a 5.5 percent decrease from 2014. And those numbers are for arrivals and departures. So, if I take the train from Niagara Falls (NFL) to BUF and back, I’m counted as two. In other words, that count of 427 daily passengers is probably about 214 people.
So why don’t more people ride? Is it cost? Time? Substandard stations? Or something else? And more importantly, will more people take the train if we spend tens of millions of dollars on a new station?
It would not appear that cost is keeping people from taking the train. A JetBlue round-trip ticket to New York City is about $116 and Amtrak is about $117. Southwest Airlines round-trip to Chicago is about $230 while Amtrak is $118.
Time is undoubtedly a factor. The New York City train trip from Buffalo is scheduled to take about eight hours. Tough to compete with JetBlue, which takes about an hour and a half. For Chicago, Amtrak is scheduled to be over 10 hours while Southwest is less than two hours.
But the wild card is on-time performance. In the past 12 months, Southwest Airlines into Chicago Midway was on time 84 percent of the time. But Amtrak’s Lake Shore train was on time less than 57 percent of the time. JetBlue’s Buffalo on-time performance was 80 percent while Amtrak’s Maple Leaf was on time just 72.3 percent of the time.
I take the train frequently from Niagara Falls to BFX and then back to NFL: 18 round trips in the past year. When I arrive at BFX, I don’t even enter the station. I walk two blocks to Main Street, where I can catch the Metro Rail. For the return trip, I use the very good Amtrak app to find out what time the train will arrive and I get to the platform at that time.
But my experience is not in line with Amtrak’s on-time performance numbers. Happily, 17 of those 18 trips began with the train leaving NFL on time: better than 72 percent. But the return train was on time just once. That’s less than 6 percent on time. Worse, even though the train nearly always leaves NFL on time, it rarely makes the 23-mile trip in the scheduled 35 minutes to BFX.
On Nov. 22, the train left NFL on time at 12:30 and arrived at BFX 45 minutes late at 1:50. Think about that for a moment. The scheduled 35-minute trip took 1 hour and 20 minutes! My return train to NFL was scheduled to leave BFX at 3:14 p.m., but it actually left at 4:53. One hour and 39 minutes late.
On Nov. 21 it was 2 hours and 53 minutes late. On Nov. 23, it was 1 hour and 17 minutes late.
Amtrak is quick to point out that this lousy on-time performance is not its fault. Since it uses tracks owned by others, primarily CSX, Amtrak frequently gets held up by CSX trains. On Nov. 22, an Amtrak employee told me that the NFL to BFX train was late “because a freight train is in our way.”
So it is my opinion that the cost of tickets is not the reason more people do not take Amtrak. Nor is it the stations. The stations are admittedly unattractive, but functionally they are adequate. And while rail is a slower mode of transportation than air, the main cause of lower ridership is the uncertainty about what time you will arrive at your destination. When your scheduled eight-hour trip to New York City stretches to nine and a half hours, it is an unhappy experience.
Which leads me to my suggestion that Buffalo simply doesn’t need a new station. And it won’t need a new station until Amtrak can attract more riders. And Amtrak won’t attract more riders until it can provide a predictable service.
One of the options for a “new” station is to rejuvenate the former Central Terminal, which could then anchor a revival of the surrounding neighborhood. I don’t dispute that. But the idea that eight trains (some in the middle of the night) handling a total of 427 passengers a day in the Central Terminal can have a meaningful impact on the terminal seems like a stretch to me. And even if it could, is it worth $25 million of scarce transportation dollars? If neighborhood revitalization/economic development is the goal, use economic development money for it!
Let’s use the transportation dollars wisely: Spend a couple of hundred thousand dollars and fix up the two stations we have – they could sure use Wi-Fi. Then use the balance of the $25 million that has been appropriated for a new station to construct dedicated Amtrak tracks adjacent to the CSX tracks, at least in areas of frequent congestion.
Then if Amtrak trains begin to run on time and that leads to an increase in passenger counts, which in turn causes congestion in the stations, we can revisit the conversation about where a new station should be. And at that point, we can use revenue derived from passengers to pay for a lot of it.
In the meantime, I have a suggestion for the committee studying the issue. Drive up to Niagara Falls, park your car and take the 12:30 train to BFX. That way, you’ll have a half hour to get to know each other and you will see the new Niagara Falls train station. Then reconvene at the New York State Department of Transportation offices on Seneca Street at 1:15 p.m. and take the 3:14 train back to the Falls.
But check the app before heading back to BFX, because the train will probably be late.
Patrick J. Whalen is director of the Niagara Global Tourism Institute in Niagara Falls. Prior to that, he was chief operating officer of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus for eight years.