Learning from OnTrack

Last week, this website published a proposal for a new transit service connecting Ithaca, Cortland, and Syracuse. Anyone familiar with the recent history of transit in Syracuse will recognize parts of this proposal from OnTrack, the rail line that ran from the Destiny Mall to Syracuse University during the nineties and thousands. OnTrack was a debacle, poorly planned and poorly implemented, but it was also an encouraging act of faith in the power of transit to improve life in Syracuse. This proposal attempts to learn the lessons of OnTrack in order to avoid its failures while still capitalizing on the potential that made it attractive in the first place.

That potential is the New York, Susquehanna, & Western right-of-way. It’s an elevated rail line that runs through Downtown on its way from Syracuse University past Destiny Mall to the William F. Walsh Regional Transportation Center. At first glance, it looks like a great way to get heavy rail transit for almost no money. Just start running trains on what’s already there, and you’ve got Chicago’s El on a Syracuse scale.

OnTrack didn’t live up to that promise. It never got enough riders to justify its operating costs, and after a few years it stopped running. A lot of people have taken the time to point out all of the problems that kept OnTrack from succeeding–it didn’t run frequently enough, it didn’t run fast enough, and it didn’t run through enough neighborhoods. Without fixing those problems, no transit service running on those train tracks could do what OnTrack tried to do.

Unfortunately, those problems are neither easy, simple, nor cheap to fix. They are the result of real practical constraints.

First, frequency. Most of the right-of-way is single-tracked, so trains running in opposite directions can’t pass each other. That means that only one train can run at a time. It would take that single train about 20 minutes to run between Syracuse University and the Regional Transportation Center or 40 minutes to make the full round trip. That’s no more frequent that Centro’s existing bus service, and it’s much less frequent than the Bus Rapid Transit service that the Syracuse Metropolitan Transportation Council recently recommended for a similar route.

Second, speed. Even though OnTrack only made a couple stops and didn’t have to deal with traffic or stop signs, it took a long looping 4 mile route to get from Downtown to the Mall and the Regional Transportation Center. A Centro bus gets from Downtown to the Regional Transportation Center in less than 3 miles, and so even though it might travel at a lower speed with more stops, its trip wouldn’t take any more time.

That all leads into the third problem, that OnTrack didn’t service residential neighborhoods. The existing track doesn’t run through the densely populated neighborhoods that already support frequent transit in Syracuse, so the only way for passengers from those neighborhoods to get to the train tracks is on a Centro bus. The tracks run within a block of Centro’s hub, so it wouldn’t be hard for people to make the transfer, but since a train running between Downtown Syracuse and the Regional Transportation Center would be neither faster nor more frequent than a bus serving the same destinations, there’s not much reason for a person to walk that block to make the transfer.

Using the existing right-of-way as part of a much larger intercity transit service avoids these problems. First, because its riders will be travelling to destinations not served by existing Centro bus routes, riders have a good reason to transfer from the bus to the train, meaning that the service does not need to pass through densely populated residential neighborhoods to pick up passengers. Second, because a train can make the 65 mile run between Ithaca and Syracuse so much faster than a bus can, it doesn’t matter that they’d run even over the 4 miles between Downtown Syracuse and the Regional Transportation Center. Third, because intercity service doesn’t need to run all that frequently to succeed, a single train running on a single track could provide the service effectively.

Old railroad rights-of-way are precious resources. New political and economic forces make it difficult to build anything like them anymore, so cities like Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Camden have taken their old underused rights-of-way and built new mass transit lines. The New York, Susquehanna, & Western right-of-way could be that kind of asset for Syracuse. OnTrack already showed us what won’t work, so let’s try something new.


This is part of a series about a potential transit service serving Syracuse, Cortland and Ithaca. Here are links to the rest of the series:
Transit Service Between the Airport, Syracuse, Cortland, and Ithaca
University Students and Public Transportation
Uniting Communities through Transit