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Can passenger trains power Buffalo's economy to the next level?

Many in Western New York have been talking about expanding public modes of transportation as a way to boost the economy and better connect residents and visitors. Expanded bus service, rapid transit and passenger trains are all on the table. Most recently, Niagara Falls opened an expanded new Amtrak station and Buffalo decided to locate its new station in downtown. WBFO's Marian Hetherly and Eileen Elibol decided to take the 45-minute train from Depot Avenue in the Falls to Exchange Street in downtown Buffalo for insight from the employees and passengers who ride the rails.

Extended audio: WBFO's Marian Hetherly and Eileen Elibol ride the rails

This year marks the bicentennial of the Erie Canal, which opened up travel across New York State and helped turn Buffalo into a major economic hub. Shortly after, trains used that same route to connect freight and passengers.

Bruce Becker, Vice President of Operations for the National Association of Railroad Passengers, gave WBFO a preview of the train trip from Niagara Falls to Buffalo.

"Between Niagara Falls and Buffalo, the rail line does come down through Wheatfield, North Tonawanda and across the canal in Tonawanda, which is always a nice site to see, particularly during the summertime as the festivals go on up there and all the boat traffic on the canal," Becker said. "You do come along the Niagara River for quite some section before you get into downtown Buffalo."

In fact, Becker said, many Amtrak routes across New York State follow canals and rivers. All of the https://youtu.be/wNdq6I33mZY">travelers WBFO talked to on our ride were vacationers - as opposed to the commuters who frequent trains in Toronto and New York City - and they all had different opinions of train travel.

As an advocate of train service, Becker said Buffalo is fortunate to have four round-trip trains leaving the city each day - two of which start at the new station in Niagara Falls. He said it is too early to tell whether ridership has increased through the new station since its opening in March, but the trip is significantly faster for travelers now.

"The handling of the passengers, particularly on the Maple Leaf which crosses the border, has been significantly improved," he said. "The amount of time it takes for the train to be processed and the passengers to go through U.S. Customs and Immigration has been significantly reduced and I know that Amtrak is looking to take time out of the schedule so the trip will be faster because of that improvement."

Becker said passenger organizations generally supported downtown Buffalo as the location for the city's new Amtrak station.

Although Amtrak ridership through the Niagara Falls, Buffalo and Depew stations dropped between 2015 and 2016, Amtrak ridership overall has been steadily increasing nationally and across New York State. NARP countednearly 190,000 riders through Western New York's three stations in 2015 and 176,000 last year. (Those were pass-throughs, not different individuals.)

However, that is still a third higher than the 115,000 a decade ago - and one of the reasons the region is betting on passenger trains for an economic boost.

"The advantages that we feel that Amtrak inner-city trains have over other modes is the ability to use time extremely wisely - the trains in New York State all feature onboard Wi-Fi, they all feature food service, they all feature the ability to get up and move around during their journey - not only enjoy the trip, but also make it a productive time while you're on the train."

However, in the broader scope, Becker said a primary role of trains is to connect smaller communities, which are less likely to have access to other cost-effective modes of mass travel. That is one reason why Amtrak has a continuing issue of "reliability and on-time performance," he said. Another reason because its passenger trains run on tracks owned by the freight service CSX.

"As an example, we said there are four round-trip Amtrak trains a day that serve Buffalo. That would be a total of eight trains, four in each direction," Becker said. "The CSX company, however, regularly has over 50 freight trains a day that run through Buffalo and then move east across the state. So Amtrak's eight is a small portion of the 50-60 trains that use that route, which is owned by CSX."

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