Opinion: Amtrak Must Restore Adirondack Service Now!

Popular trains to Montreal and the North Country fell during the pandemic. New Yorkers need them back.

An Amtrak train at Buffalo Exchange Place. Photo: Ben Turon
An Amtrak train at Buffalo Exchange Place. Photo: Ben Turon

Amtrak, like much of the transportation industry, cut its service during the pandemic because of the collapse in ridership, but restoring it has been difficult owing to labor shortages exacerbated by layoffs, retirements and Covid outbreaks among staff. As the city, state, and nation emerge from the pandemic, however, Amtrak must step up its game and restore popular routes that remain suspended.

Steve Strauss
Steve Strauss

Those include the daily Adirondack train from New York to Montreal, serving the North Country, and an important Sunday-only later afternoon/evening train eastbound across the state (departing Buffalo at 3:37 p.m.; Albany at 9:15 p.m.) that terminates in New York City. These trains are important: The missing northbound Adirondack creates a problematic three-hour morning gap in Amtrak service with the Maple Leaf (departing at 7:15 a.m.) and the next northbound train at 10:15 a.m. Adding to the problem, Amtrak still has not restored all the service in the Hudson Valley.

People who formerly rode the Adirondack in the Hudson Valley or up to Saratoga Springs now must ride the Ethan Allen or other trains — resulting in frequent train sellouts several days in advance of departure. Saratoga Springs remains stuck with just one train a day compared to the two well-used trains of the pre-Covid era.

Similarly, without the northbound morning Adirondack train, the Maple Leaf, the Ethan Allen and other Empire Corridor trains to Buffalo and Niagara Falls often cannot provide seats to New York City travelers going upstate because the seats are filled with customer traveling to Rhinecliff and Hudson, the third- and fourth-busiest Amtrak stations in the state. (Amtrak also cut bike service on the Maple Leaf when it changed the coaches for ones without bicycle racks. It should add a baggage car to the train in order to hold bikes and other large items; it has several New York-built baggage cars sitting unused in yards.)

Who could help? Under federal law, states pay for the full net cost of Amtrak service on routes of 750 miles or less. In New York, all Amtrak service north of New York City is funded by the state Department of Transportation, not Amtrak! Thus, better Amtrak service in New York State is as much or more the responsibility of state DOT, Gov. Hochul and the Legislature as Amtrak. (The only exception is the Lakeshore Limited, a long-distance train that is funded with federal subsidies paid to Amtrak.) They ought to act forthwith!

An Amtrak train at Schenectady. Photo: ESPARAIL
An Amtrak train at Schenectady. Photo: ESPARAIL

Amtrak restored some bare-bones service in the Empire Corridor in 2020 — including the Lakeshore Limited long-distance train to Chicago. It did not significantly restore schedules until 2021 — when Saratoga Springs and Rutland, Vt., had train service restored on the Ethan Allen and the full schedule of trains to Niagara Falls resumed. More frequencies between Albany and New York City returned to the schedule in 2022 and, during the summer, the Maple Leaf’s international segment from Niagara Falls to Toronto came back.

This summer Amtrak also implemented the long-planned extension of the Ethan Allen Express from Rutland to Burlington in cooperation with the Vermont Agency for Transportation and, with funding from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, extended a weekend New York City to Albany train to Pittsfield, Mass. (Fridays and Sundays only during the summer).

It’s still not enough: Riders want to take the trains, and too many of the trains are jammed full! Even missing several daily trains, Amtrak ridership in New York state has climbed back from the bleak numbers of the first half of 2020. In fact, in July 2022 ridership was only 23,200 riders below the pre-pandemic July 2019 numbers — and the lack of trains has seriously inconvenienced passengers.

Amtrak-ridership strokeThe Empire State Passengers Association has been pressing Amtrak and state DOT to either restore the Adirondack train to Montreal (or to Albany as an interim measure). We also want Amtrak to add cars to existing trains and restore trains to the Hudson Valley service.

What’s holding back the Adirondack, the only one of Amtrak’s three international trains still not operating?  We can’t say for sure because Amtrak and the New York State DOT will not fully disclose the holdups, which stem from negotiations with Canadian railroads over track conditions and access with border-control agencies.

New York and Canada need to iron out any issues. Given the need for greener alternatives to car and plane travel and the demonstrated clamor for Amtrak seats, they ought to do it — now.

Steve Strauss is executive director of the Empire State Passengers Association, a statewide intercity passenger rail advocacy organization with parallel interests in downstate commuter rail and local transit statewide. For more information, take a look at esparail.org.

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