April 25, 2018

LAM | No, an Amtrak Station in Ithaca Is Not an Absurd Idea

Print More

In a recent meeting on connecting Cornell and New York City, Prof. Noliwe Rooks, Africana and feminist, gender and sexuality studies, asked, “How hard would it be to get Amtrak to let us have a stop here?”  Largely ignored by our leaders, her idea was also noted by some commentators as unrealistic and a nearly impossible feat. They are right; Professor Rooks’ idea is not easy to implement. However, it is also worth a consideration. In fact, a rail line from Ithaca to New York, via Binghamton and Scranton is the final key to connecting our bucolic campus and city to the financial and commercial center of this country.

There used to be light rail trains in Ithaca, in fact.  Knowing how important a connection to New York was, Ithaca’s forebears had actually built and operated a train line to Penn Station for many decades.  The tracks are still there on Fulton Street, on which a freight train now runs to a local power plant. The elegant, classical revival passenger station also remains, now serving as a branch office of the Chemung Canal Trust Company.  The groundwork is literally there for a revival; it just needs to be rehabilitated.

A simple Google Maps search shows further.  The current tracks, operated by private rail freight company Norfolk Southern, head down from Fulton Street to a junction in Waverly and end up going over to Binghamton and Scranton. The tracks then head further south to Allentown, Penn., however, without a current direct connection to the tri-state area.  Like Ithaca’s railway, there used to be a connection: an engineering feat, the Lackwanna Cut-Off railroad connected to New York and was abandoned in the 1970s, along with the demise of other railroad companies.  Fortunately, through lobbying efforts by senators and commuter advocacy groups aike, construction has already begun to restore the line, with service to Andover, NJ slated to begin in 2020.  If the stars align in New Jersey, and New York State plays its role in reviving its portion of the tracks, then a physical connection is not impossible.

Map

I emphasize physical because the restoration is currently led by NJ Transit, a state agency that runs Jersey commuter trains to New York.  Amtrak, the federal quasi-public corporation that runs interstate long-distance lines and whose name promotes poor spelling, would have to wrestle for access.

Operationally, this line would have to contend with competitors that originally killed it in 1961 — the car and bus.  Service to New York need to be reliable and under four-hour travel time from the tri-state area to compete against the bus, which takes five or six hours, depending on traffic in the Lincoln Tunnel.  The passage should be seamless as well, with substantial connections to other parts of Ithaca from the train station. Cornell, for example, should operate a shuttle from the station to Central Campus that runs on a complementary schedule to the train.  The trains themselves need not be gaudy and laden with “Millennial-friendly” expensive technology, but simply maintained, clean and comfortable.

Since coming to Cornell, I have made the journey from home in New York to Ithaca at least twenty times, and I’m sure many of my fellow students have done so as well.  This five-hour trip, which is taken either by the bus or the car, is the single biggest competitive disadvantage that Cornell and the Southern Tier has compared to its peers.  Buses are plagued with late arrivals, disgusting bathrooms, smelly seats and haphazard driving. While driving is a better alternative, I am personally exhausted, like many Cornell parents, of having to stay mentally alert for five-plus hours or risk death, dealing with Jersey drivers, seedy rest stops, and burning gas and money.

Being a public transit rider for most of my life, I can tell you that transit experience is simple: just get me from A to B safely, quickly, comfortably and at a reasonable price. In the Ithaca-to-New York transport market, none of the competitors are doing this, and that’s why new private bus companies keep popping up with band-aid solutions. Even the University has entered the market with the Campus-to-Campus bus, which is the most comfortable but also with the most expensive price tag designed to capture the wealthy alumni and guests. A train line, however, if well-executed, is the real, permanent answer that can unlock the economic potential of this University, city, and region. The new Governor of New York, whoever it will be,  needs to get on this.

This proposal is one that we absolutely can realize, and certainly not scoff off as an impossible.  It is not impossible — our predecessors who literally dug and built railroads across this country from scratch more than 100 years ago proved it so.  And if we leave their groundwork to waste, while other countries are literally speeding past us with their own network expansions and reaping the economic benefits, we only have ourselves (and the car lobby) to blame.

Matthew Lam is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at mhl82@cornell.edu. The Despatch Box appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.