Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Capital of the Empire

Truth be told, my exercise in planning a high-speed rail station in Burlington was not very challenging. It is a small city in a very rural state, so I found it easy to get a line close to downtown without having to plow under hundreds of homes. So I decided to do another analysis

This time I chose the Albany-Schenectady-Troy, NY Metropolitan Statistical Area, a.k.a. the Capital District. It is a much more populous area than the Burlington, VT MSA, being home to over 1.2 million people by the Census Bureau's estimates. And it is a major rail hub, with seven main lines radiating from the area. Albany is the top of the "Selkirk Hurdle," which is shorthand the detour trains must make due to the lack of freight rail connections across the Hudson below the city. Any freight destined for New York City or southern Connecticut has to either cross the river (which is really a long, narrow fjord below Troy) on CSX's Alfred H. Smith Memorial Bridge just below Albany, or be transferred to truck, usually at the Port of New Jersey, and driven into the city. A freight rail tunnel from New Jersey to Queens is being planned, but its opening will be many years in the future.

Before I started laying out track I created a number of requirements. One was that there would be four HSR lines converging on the area, one from each of New York City, Boston, Buffalo, and Montreal. However, only four of the six possible city pairs needed to be easily completed (BOS-BFX, BOS-MTL, NYP-BFX, NYP-MNT) as there would be better routes for the other two (BOS-NYP, BFX-MNT). Another was that the station(s) should be as close to downtown(s) as possible. A third was that the considerable freight traffic in the region not be permanently impaired. And of course minimizing destruction and disruption would be nice.

It turns out keeping the freight moving wasn't so hard for the five lines south of the city. But getting freight arriving from the north on CP or from the east on PAR to the five southern lines, along with the reverse, was much more problematic. Currently, some of it passes through Albany along the waterfront, but most of it goes through downtown Schenectady. Building a new line to connect the south end of CP's Mohawk Yard to CP's line south to Binghamton was key to untangling the knot of lines in Schenectady. I located this line on the north/west bank of the Mohawk, but a crossing further west could accomplish the same end.

With the Schenectady choke point gone, the rest of the pieces fell into place pretty easily. The most disruptive element would be the new station in Albany. The current station across the river in Rensselaer, while not very far physically, cannot be accessed from Albany on foot. A pedestrian bridge could be built over the Hudson, but I think most people would be uncomfortable using it at night. The station would also have to be reconfigured extensively to accommodate the much longer HSR trains and an extra set of tracks. The original Albany Union Station is in a great location, but the ROW has been mostly obliterated by the waterfront highway, so it can't be reopened. An alternative would be to excavate a tunnel, but that would be very expensive and disruptive. Plus, it could only be accessed by electricity-powered trains. I thought the best solution would be build a new station on the Albany side of the river in an area that consists mostly of warehouses and small businesses. I am not a fan of "urban renewal" projects that destroy acres of existing city fabric, but at least this project would allow expansion of the downtown area northwards once the existing lines were removed.

As for the rest, hopefully the map explains itself. Enjoy!

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