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Syracuse: When Rail Fails

In 1994, Syracuse, NY became the smallest city in the United States to have regional rail service. After 13 years of rocky service, the plug was pulled on On-Track this past Summer. Metro Jacksonville examines why rail went wrong and what does it mean for Jacksonville.

Published January 9, 2008 in Transit      8 Comments    Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article


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Statistics:

SyracusePopulation 2006:140,658 (City); 650,051 (Metro) - (incorporated in 1825)

Jacksonville Pop. 2006: 790,689 (City); 1,277,997 (Metro) - (incorporated in 1832)

City population 1950: Jacksonville (204,517);Syracuse (220,583)

OnTrack ran from Colvin Street on the city's south side via Syracuse University and Amory Square to the Carousel Center, using three 1950's Budd Rail Diesel Cars. OnTrack was owned and operated by the New York Susquehanna & Western Railroad, which received $400,000 annually in tax breaks by the State of New York to keep the system up and running.

It began as a public-private partnership in 1994 when the Onondaga County Industrial Development Agency bought 10 miles of track from Conrail for $1, then leased the tracks to NYS&W. In exchange, the railroad was required to run OnTrack 250 days a year for at least 1,250 trips.

Limited Operation Hours:

Operation hours were extremely limited, with trains running only on weekends between September and May and only on Saturdays during the summer months. This decision alone, eliminated the potential of this system becoming an option for weekday commuters. In 2005, OnTrack averaged 75 riders a day. By early 2007, that number had dropped to 50 riders a day.

Poor Accessibility:

Despite going through some of the city's densest communities, like JTA's BRT plan will, stations were located in non-residential areas, hampering the possibility of walk-up ridership.

Naturally, Amory Square (The Downtown stop) was the most popular destination for OnTrack riders. Unfortunately, all other stations along the route were not located near locations of density and heavy pedestrian traffic.

Incomplete Vision:

In April 2004, financing was approved to reach the city's intermodal transportation center, the farmer's market and Alliance Bank Stadium. These stations had been constructed, at the cost of $400,000, years earlier along with track, however they remained cut off from the rest of the system, due to a missing bridge link. Although the state set aside $3 million for a bridge over Park Street to connect the struggling system with major destination stops, construction was halted in 1999, when Conrail complained that construction was making its nearby bridge unsafe.

Spacehad been developed over 10 years ago for an OnTrack station at the Transportation Center, which is already served by Amtrak, but NYS&W never laid track to connect with the station.

Today, rusty cars sit unused at Carousel Station. Carousel Station was built for $500,000. Since OnTrack's demise, it has been discovered that NYS&W used the annual OnTrack subsidies to enhance their freight lines, instead of enhancing the passenger line.

What Can Jacksonville Learn?

The OnTrack saga is a great example of how not to develop a transit system. A combination of bad route planning, station location selections, lack of accountability, and a limited operating schedule had doomed this operation from the start.

For transit to work, regardless of whether it is bus or rail, it has to be user friendly and major part of that is accessing where transit riders live, work, and play. Locally, we've seen the Skyway struggle with ridership for the exact same reasons. With BRT coming online, poor route planning, a lack of accountability, and bad station locations will potentially hamper its success as well.








8 Comments

archiphreak

January 09, 2008, 09:04:29 AM
This is a great example of how not to do something.  I applaud you for going to such lengths even to show how rail can fail.  I just hope the city doesn't use this as their latest banner flag for why BRT is so much better than rail.

Dapperdan

January 09, 2008, 09:58:48 AM
Maybe the city can buy up some of their rail cars for cheap.

Ocklawaha

January 09, 2008, 10:13:00 AM
If they have been sitting, those cars are probably trashed. The regular inspections on moving equipment and certificates are probably void, and they'd have to be repaired in place or trucked out to be repaired.

The up side is, they did pick some of the best equipment they could have found for the operation. Dallas Trinity Rail Express uses the same vehicles. These are Rail Diesel Cars, known as RDC-1's (all coach version). For Jacksonville, I really like the RDC-2's (coach with small baggage doors on the side, at one end) This old baggage compartment converts nicely to ADA wheelchair access, and ADA restrooms.


Ocklawaha

Matt

January 09, 2008, 03:53:58 PM
I just hope the city doesn't use this as their latest banner flag for why BRT is so much better than rail.

if anything, the city would see this as another thing that could fail and blight jacksonville, and they would jump right on it ;)

gatorback

January 09, 2008, 06:49:20 PM
I wonder if with the increased cost of gas, if they could have held out a little longer to see the turn around.

K

January 10, 2008, 08:17:20 PM
That's funny, I worked in Syracuse, on the SU campus, until 2005 and never saw a running train.  Until I read this article, I had thought the stations were abandoned relics from a happier time decades ago, like much of Syracuse's industrial landscape.  The Carousel Center stop looked like a bus station, and it was at the outer edge of the enormous parking lot surrounding the 3-story mall.  The limited service of these cars seems a shame, and they're so good-looking!

Looking at the map, it seems their best use would have been ferrying students to the miniature downtown (Armory Square), the mall, and then the Amtrak station, making them essentially a campus shuttle.  As the tracks doesn't stretch out to the newer growth on Erie Blvd., (Syracuse's version of Southside) it doesn't seem to have been practical for non-students living downtown or in the places where population density off-campus has migrated -east and west, toward the towns of Manlius and Camillus. 

Syracuse is a spread-out city, where you are best served by a car or bus (try riding your bike in a foot of cold wet slush!) if you don't live on campus.  Even if I had known there was a train to take me to the mall after work, how would I get home without taking the bus, or taking the train back to my car?  Why not just take the bus to begin with if the train is only a short-track novelty?  And I thought the Skyway Express was limited.

I'm sure there wasn't much economic incentive to keep or expand the trains.  Outside of the University, the younger generation and retirees are moving away, despite public quality-of-life campaigns.  Which is a shame.  At least Jacksonville and its surrounding areas are growing, we've got that going for us.  I bet there are tons of Syracusians down here.

thelakelander

January 10, 2008, 08:23:38 PM
I don't know how they expected this thing to be successful by only running it on the weekends and never connecting it with the amtrak station.  It seems like they planned it to fail on purpose.

Lunican

August 10, 2010, 03:42:30 PM
Quote
Rebirth of a City
By ROBERTA BRANDES GRATZ

Rick Destito knew exactly what he was getting into when he bought a rundown, three-story Victorian house in one of the poorest neighborhoods of Syracuse. Built in the 1890s but left abandoned for years, the place was in serious disrepair: graffiti and mold stained the exterior, the windows were gone and the roof needed to be replaced. But under an innovative local housing program, he paid only a dollar for the place — plus another $60,000, and his own skilled labor, to make it suitable for his family, including a one-year old girl and a baby on the way.

For decades, people like Mr. Destito — young, skilled, motivated — were exactly the sort who left Rust Belt cities like Syracuse. But recently, in numbers not yet statistically measurable but clearly evident at the ground level, they’ve been coming back to the city, first as a trickle, and now by the hundreds. In some ways it’s a part of the natural ebb and flow of urban demographics. But it is also the result of a new attitude among the city’s leadership, one that admits the failure of the re-industrialization efforts of the last decades and instead invents ways to attract new types of residents and keep current ones from leaving. Call it urban renewal 2.0, gentrification on a citywide scale.

Full Article:
http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/08/10/rebirth-of-a-city/
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