Improving Amtrak passenger train service into and out of this region is almost as important as improving the connecting Metro Rail service. That from a meeting Tuesday night sponsored by Citizens for Regional Transit.
The meeting held in historic First Presbyterian Church was convened by a group that has traditionally been active in pushing for extension of the Metro Rail. Citizens for Regional Transit supports the current $5 million study on a northern extension across Amherst and a southern extension into Buffalo's Cobblestone District.
Those in attendance were told New York State is near completion of a study on speeding up service Upstate, but it has been in the works for four years and the trains are not any faster or any more likely to stay on schedule. The slow and erratic train service is said to be a handicap to tourism, since most tourists are used to rail service in their daily lives.
Much of Tuesday's meeting discussed improving Amtrak service into the area and onward to Niagara Falls and Toronto. Niagara Global Tourism Institute Director Patrick Whalen said his group gets Niagara Falls tourists to stay an extra day by exploring Buffalo and deals with Amtrak's failure to meet its schedule into Niagara Falls by using an app.
"That tells them exactly what time the train will be there," Whalen said. "So if it's going to be two hours late, you can spend a little more time at the Albright. You can get another beer at a pub. But it's a little embarrassing to explain this to the tourist who has just agreed to stay another night and say, 'Well, you're probably going to be late coming back, so get the app and figure out how late.'"
Whalen said improving Metro Rail service and building a new Exchange Street Station may not be as important as getting Amtrak service to stay on schedule. He said tourists from much of the world expect to ride rail on both sides of the Niagara River, as they do at home, but that is not available here. Although, GO train service between Toronto and Niagara Falls, ON will bring lots more tourists from that side of the river.
Congressman Brian Higgins was there to press his campaign to fix up the Metro Rail before extending it. Higgins said there is a need for much faster passenger rail service.
"Now we're in a situation where we're behind the train and we have a lot to do in order to catch up," Higgins said. "So I think real high-speed rail would provide a real alternative for people. Right now, you jump on a train from Buffalo to Albany, it's 6-6 1/2 hours. That's not an alternative to driving when you can drive in four hours."
The fastest trains in the United States are about as fast as secondary trains in much of the rest of the world.
Bruce Becker, vice president of operations for the Rail Passenger Association, said better Metro Rail service and better Amtrak service are linked in a network.
"It is a combination of buses, it is certainly light rail as we have it today and extended in the future up to North Campus in Amherst or out to the airport," Becker said, "and also then looking at the rail component, not just the Amtrak service we have now or we might hope to have in the future, but also looking at a dedicated service that would take account of Toronto, Niagara Falls, ON, Niagara Falls, NY and down to Buffalo."
There are two other Amtrak trains that run between New York City and Niagara Falls each day and a train that runs through this area between Chicago and Boston or New York, stopping only in Depew.