New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration is working hard to support freight rail improvements throughout the state as part of a broader commitment to infrastructure development, Karen J. Rae, deputy secretary for transportation, told a small audience of transportation professionals in Washington last week.
Among the areas that could benefit from greater freight rail service is Long Island, she said.
Since taking office 33 months ago, Cuomo has made infrastructure development a key component of his economic agenda, as embodied in the 2012 New York Works initiative passed by the state legislature that includes a $1 billion targeted investment in rebuilding roads, bridges, parks, and waterways and modernizing buildings. A part of the governor’s future economic development plan is a $15 billion initiative to rehabilitate state infrastructure, including building a new Tappan Zee Bridge, funded from multiple sources besides the state.
The New York Metropolitan Transportation Council, the multi-jurisdiction planning organization for the New York City region, forecasts freight volume will increase 85 percent by 2030.
Rae said gridlock on area highways can be alleviated with better freight rail options.
The New York Department of Transportation in December helped broker a deal under which Amtrak took over operation and maintenance of 94 miles of infrequently used track on the CSX network between Poughkeepsie and Schenectedy. Amtrak is investing $180 million to increase the reliability of the service, including adding a second track on a 17-mile stretch of the route, improving safety features at street-level crossing, and replacing more than 60 miles of obsolete signal wires and burying them underground. The signal wires are the source of frequent outages along the Hudson line, especially during inclement weather and trains must move at 15 mph on a track capable of supporting mph speeds, according to the governor’s office.
Under the lease agreement, Amtrak will take over dispatching and can make improvements without the approval of CSX, which will still use the Hudson Line to provide freight service.
New York & Atlantic
New York DOT is also working with the Norfolk Southern to replace a 135-year-old bridge near Portageville on the Southern Tier line so freight can move directly between Binghamton and Buffalo, Rae said during a forum hosted by Women in Transportation, a career development organization devoted to opening opportunities for women in the transportation field.
The new bridge, estimated to cost $68.5 million, will have heavy-duty track capable of carrying 286,000-pound rail cars, according to N.Y. DOT officials. Previously, unit coal trains detoured to avoid the bridge until the power plant they served closed, while cars with other commodities traversing the bridge are usually loaded to less than full capacity. The agency has provided $3 million towards engineering and environmental review cuts and made an additional $2.5 million available for construction. The rest will be split between the NS and the Canadian Pacific Railway. The project is currently undergoing an environmental review and is scheduled to take three years to complete once construction begins.
Meanwhile, state officials would like to increase freight rail utilization on Long Island so there are fewer trucks on heavily congested highways to and from New York City.
Only 1 percent of the freight in and out of the peninsula is moved by freight, Rae said.
“Long Island is one of the least rail-freight friendly places in the country,” she said.
A major step forward was the opening a couple years ago of the independently owned and operated Brookhaven Rail Terminal in Yaphank, which is increasingly being used to move produce and construction materials, Rae said. The company provides terminal services to the public and can handle hopper cars, intermodal cars, box cars, and A-frames with lumber and drywall.
The New York Metropolitan Transportation Council’s Freight Transportation Working Group is scheduled to hear a presentation on how to increase freight rail through Brookhaven and Long Island at its next meeting on Sept. 25, part of a broader effort to update the 2004 regional freight plan.
The New York & Atlantic Railway is a private short line that operates under contract to move freight on the Long Island Railroad’s commuter rail network. The Long Island Railroad privatized its freight rail operations in 1997.
The railroad adds a couple of customers each year and this year expects to move about 27,000 carloads, up from about 10,500 annual carloads in 2000, but expects more rapid growth in coming years as traffic congestion intensifies, President Paul M. Victor said in a phone interview.
Construction of another river crossing and expressway to Long Island is not envisioned anytime soon, so “as you have natural growth in the region you’re going to reach saturation points in terms of highway infrastructure and as capacity gets constrained some portion of that is going to have to come by rail. The railroad infrastructure could serve a little bit as a relief valve,” he said.
The New York & Atlantic, a subsidiary of Anacostia Rail Holdings, has 13 locomotives and operates trains on the densest commuter operation in the country. It has to carefully coordinate movements with the Long Island Railroad, which has traffic peaks during rush hour and frequent train stops. The NY&A runs over freight-only track in New York City and at the far end of Long Island, but from Jamaica on out it runs on the Long Island Railroad’s main track.
“I think there’s growing awareness that railroads are the green way to go,” compared to trucks, Victor said, adding that the short-line railroad takes the equivalent of 110,000 trucks off the road.
The company has about 85 customers. The real constraint on growth is supporting terminal infrastructure for laydown and distribution of bulky commodities, he explained.
Most of the railroad’s freight originates on property owned or leased by shippers that must be willing to construct spurs connecting to NY&A’s line – an expensive undertaking in an urban setting. As customers invest in more access, the railroad augment’s its yard capacity, Victor said.
Besides operating on a crowded commuter rail network, another constraint is that there's no large heavy industry on Long Island. Most inbound items involve construction materials and food, while the top outbound items from Long Island are steel for recycling and construction demolition materials. The railroad also hauls municipal solid waste from New York City to landfills.
The Home Depot has a distribution center at the Brookhaven Terminal to serve its 20-plus retail stores in Long Island.
Almost all NY&A's traffic is interchanged with other short-line or Class I railroads to reach its final destination.