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Making trains run on time more critical than site, tourism leader says

Improving the on-time performance of trains should be a greater concern than where a new Buffalo train station is located, according to a tourism leader.

Patrick J. Whalen, director of the Niagara Global Tourism Institute, said the slumping number of riders the past two years in Buffalo, and the fact that New York State had to spend $44 million  last year to subsidize passenger rail, are a testament to Amtrak's unreliability.

"The galling part of this is that rail could work in upstate," said Whalen, former chief operating officer of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.

Whalen said he's a good example of why it's currently not working. In 2016, he took twice-monthly business trips for nine months on Amtrak, between Niagara Falls and Buffalo. He looked forward to being able to read or work rather than driving.

Whalen was late twice leaving from Niagara Falls out of the 18 times he boarded. On both occasions, he sat on the stopped train, near the International Bridge in Buffalo, as freight trains got preference along the single track. Both times, the train was 50 minutes late on a 35-minute trip.

But that experience paled compared to leaving Buffalo for Niagara Falls. The inbound train along the 463-mile corridor from New York City to Niagara Falls was late coming into Buffalo 17 out of the 18 trips, often by more than an hour. Whalen gave up.

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While Amtrak ridership statewide has been on a steady upswing for years, reaching 12.4 million passengers in 2016, the numbers at Buffalo's Exchange Street station went from 40,809 in 2014 to 41,216 in 2015 before dropping to 37,524 in 2016. At the Depew station, ridership dropped more significantly, from 124,166 in 2014 to 114,785 in 2015, to 106,120 in 2016.

Whalen, through the Niagara Falls tourism institute – a Niagara University-led initiative – began a program that gives visitors an incentive to spend an extra day at a hotel to see Buffalo's attractions.

"We convinced 51 people – and the people who came with them – to stay in hotels an extra night because of the amenities in Buffalo," Whalen said. "I want to put tourists on these trains to Buffalo, and it's embarrassing.

"We have to tell them that the train from Niagara Falls to Buffalo is going to be on time, and the one coming back will be late. So we tell them to check the Amtrak app so they'll know how late."

Whalen wishes there was a greater focus on correcting the known choke points where passenger trains must wait for slower and longer freight trains to go by on tracks the freight companies own.

"In a perfect world, I'd say take that $25 million and put some parallel tracks in to improve the performance," Whalen said of the money included in Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's Buffalo Billion II for a new train station. "We can incrementally improve the service by fixing a few of the pinch points."

Whalen said the increased demand for on-time passenger trains would result in a reduction in the $44 million annually that New York State pays to subsidize Amtrak as more customers find the train reliable enough to pay for . The savings could then be used to build the new station.

As for where one should be located, Whalen thinks it's important that it be downtown.

He said a second station makes sense in the Central Terminal – the other site being considered – if it's redeveloped and passenger counts warrant it.

Whalen also said using Buffalo Billion II money would be a good way to jump-start the East Side landmark.

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