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Taking the train

As a lifelong rail enthusiast, maybe I can speak just a little bit to Tim Louis Macaluso's piece, "New Train Station, Old Problems."

First, major kudos to Louise Slaughter for championing this project so persistently, and to the designer for such a handsome reminder of Claude Bragdon's imposing original. But the problems it inherits: this could go either way.

Our local main line had no such problems through the first half of the 20th century, when the then-New York Central was perhaps America's premier passenger carrier and American builders were turning out the world's finest passenger cars.

But then came A) the Interstate highway system, B) the Boeing 727, and C) the loss of the railroads' national mail-carrying contract, leaving us with Amtrak (technically a government corporation) in 1971.

Amtrak isn't really a railroad, except in the Washington-New York-Boston corridor. It's a tenant of a freight-only railroad, in our case now CSX, presently under new management that has a past reputation for strictly economizing operations to keep the hedge funds happy.

And the obvious passenger-car shortage is aggravated by an ill-advised contract Amtrak signed some two-plus years ago for 250 new passenger cars from a Spanish-owned builder in Elmira - which, as it turns out, doesn't really know much about building passenger cars. Only the baggage cars and just now a couple of dining cars are up and running so far.

And now comes the latest threat: our new president threatens to "zero out" Amtrak's long-distance trains - despite the fact that they regularly sell out - in forthcoming budgets. (There goes the Lake Shore Limited to Chicago.)

So cross your fingers. Meanwhile, try the train to New York City some time. Sit on the right side if you can. That ride from Albany down the Hudson is one of the prettiest in the world.


As a lover of rail travel, it pains me to admit that it's becoming harder to defend the issues that Amtrak passengers experience on nearly every ride. Amtrak "rents" track from CSX, the freight carrier that owns the lines that service most of New York State. Frequent delays are, for the most part, due to "freight traffic," with Amtrak trains taking a backseat to freight trains.

Amtrak is in a difficult spot. At a time when our country is seeking alternative forms of transit, and with a millennial population that is seeing the automobile as less and less of a necessity, passenger rail is poised to be a fantastic regional transportation option. But significant delays (hours, not minutes) are pervasive, making this a far less attractive option for recreational travel and an impossible option for reliable business travel.

Take it from someone who has traveled across New York State over a hundred times via Amtrak in the last several years: If you have to get somewhere by a certain time, Amtrak is not a good option. But unfortunately, Amtrak simply does not have the budget or capabilities to address these issues.

Amtrak's positives include convenience and comfort. You can arrive at the station five minutes before the train arrives and board when it gets there. You can take two bags, and they go in the racks above your seat. No security lines, no one going through your stuff... you just get on the train and go.

Once you're on board, you can sprawl out in the large seats with plenty of leg room, or walk down to the cafe car for some food and drink. It's relaxing, and the scenery is nice.

Unless major changes to service are undertaken, Amtrak will continue to be underutilized. It will simply be an "additive" for the cities it serves rather than a significant motivator for commerce and tourism in Upstate NY. I love Amtrak, but unless drastic changes are made, its potential will never be maximized.


You can blame Amtrak's on-time performance on CSX, the freight company that owns the tracks and dispatches the trains. They are under no obligation to keep Amtrak trains on schedule, thanks to successful lobbying by the freight industry to strike down a century-old regulation that gives priority to passenger trains.

Amtrak trains will yield to freight at the whim of CSX. As for increasing service and adding cars, NYSDOT will have to pony up more money for additional frequencies, and Amtrak will have to beg Congress for money to buy additional cars.


CMAC's sound

On the recent Elvis Costello performance at CMAC: I've been a big fan of Elvis Costello for a long time. The whole vibe was great, and his band was hot. Sadly, the sound was the poorest I've ever heard at CMAC. It was far louder than desirable for an artist of Elvis's wit and subtlety.

I can understand that some sound engineers might mistakenly think that much volume is necessary at an outdoor show. But distortion? "Clubland" is one of my favorite Costello tunes, and I couldn't recognize what I was listening to until midway through the first chorus. In all my years of attending CMAC shows, this is the first time I've experienced poor sound.


Cobbs Hill living

When Governor Harriman dug his ceremonial spade at the groundbreaking of Cobbs Hill Village nearly 60 years ago, he was applauded by the elderly residents of 27 attached, ground-level, white clapboard cottages that had been cobbled together from the remains of World War II Prisoners of War barracks.

This was reported to be one of the governor's pet projects, for it provided an opportunity for the State of New York to make permanent an experiment that John Dale, the first manager for Rochester Management, had embraced. As was reported in the Democrat and Chronicle, elderly residents cheered the concept: They boasted about it being like a motel, at that time an exciting new option to the dreary hotel.

Dale hired C. Storrs Barrows, a celebrated Rochester architect. The design of Cobbs Hill Village was based on the prior tenants' strong endorsement of ground-level, private units, which he combined with good planning theory. Sidewalks are wide and fully covered. They face either lawns or a treelawn. Tenants have a shady place to read or chat with a neighbor. This became a ready-made solution to a central challenge of old age: loneliness.

In a poll recently conducted by the Tenants Association, a majority expressed a preference to remain in their present, well built, sturdy masonry homes, even though the management guaranteed them that there would be no increase in rent if they agreed to move to the two- and three-story elevator buildings now being proposed. They voted to forego the offer of the usual modern apartment amenities in order to preserve what they know works well. As police records bear out, the community has always been safe.

Rents are the lowest in the city: $325 for a studio and $515 for a one-bedroom unit. With the proposed new project, rents for all but the current tenants will start at $460 for the eight studio units, and soar up to $1,200 plus utilities for 16 two-bedroom units.

The retirement incomes of current tenants ranges from $13,000 to $20,000, making the present Cobbs Hill Village truly affordable, consuming only 30 percent of tenants' income for rent. That leaves just enough money monthly for meds, food, sundries, and for those with a little higher income, a car.

Citywide, 60 percent of seniors living alone, with low incomes such as these, have to make tough choices every month, between rent, food, heat, meds, or transportation. Half spend more than 50 percent of their income for shelter.

This proposal raises an interesting issue: Is "up-to-date" always necessary? The tenants resoundingly said "no." For them, their affordable attached "cottages" opening to the sidewalk and the easy socialization that provides, is more important.


(Rosen is an architect who has designed nearly a thousand units of housing for the elderly.)