Rebirth of High-Speed Trains Puts N.Y. Town Back on Track

If the trains succeed in Northeast, other states may begin placing orders

Clyde Rabideau drives his truck across the snow-covered tarmac at Plattsburgh Air Force Base, recalling the days when the concrete plain was a jam-packed parking lot of FB-111 fighter jets and B-52 bombers.

Like many residents of this lakefront city of 22,000, Mayor Rabideau's life was closely entwined with the US Air Force - Plattsburgh's largest employer, its economic base, its source of vitality.

But today, the tarmac expanse is surrounded by a ghost town of vacant barracks and buildings. On Sept. 30, 1995, the 5000-acre base closed, ending two centuries of military employment in New York's northeast corner and forcing Plattsburgh into the uncomfortable position of redefining its very identity.

Now, after months of effort, the city's new image is taking shape - in the form of high-speed trains. With them come what the Air Force had excised: jobs, a stable economy, and on a deeper level, self-confidence and a sense of purpose.

Last March, Plattsburgh achieved its biggest payoff since the Air Force began pulling out three years ago. Bombardier Inc., a Quebec-based manufacturing giant, was awarded the contract to build high-speed Amtrak trains scheduled to speed between Washington and Boston by 1999 - and much of the work will be done here. The contact is expected to be worth nearly $900 million and will create 6,000 jobs nationwide.

"Putting the Bombardier deal together was a coup for this city," says Rabideau. "We rebounded." By this time next year, Bombardier hopes to have 600 to 800 people building the next generation of US trains.

For the next three years, Bombardier's Plattsburgh plant (along with a Vermont plant) will assemble 36 engines and 108 passenger cars. The new "American Flyer" fleet will trim the train ride between New York and Boston from four-and-a-half hours to about three, and the Washington-New York trip from three to two-and-a-half.

"If you're a youngster who wants to stay in Plattsburgh, we're looking at another 5,000 decent-paying jobs coming to this area over the next few years," says John Gallagher, principal at Plattsburgh High School.

Unemployment hovers at a respectable 6 percent. But Mr. Gallagher expects more jobs to result from Plattsburgh's efforts to woo Bombardier's Canada-based suppliers - makers of train windows, light fixtures, and seats - with the promise of proximity to the Amtrak site and entree to the US market.

Rabideau, who visits Montreal once a week to negotiate with those companies, calls it a full-court press. "My belief is that Bombardier and Bombardier suppliers and subsidiaries, within the next few years, will become the major employer in Plattsburgh," he says.

His optimism is a far cry from the picture here after the base closed. "Everybody was gearing up for an expansion. People were buying land, getting financing going for new apartment buildings. There was a lot of confidence. And then: bang! The bubble burst," Rabideau recalls.

Plattsburgh's achievement may hold some lessons for other parts of the nation, says Amtrak president Thomas Downs. The trains being built in Plattsburgh represent the nation's entry into a mode of high-speed transport that for years has served European and Japanese travelers well. At speeds of 150 miles an hour, the new American Flyers are expected to compete with airlines and add 3 million passengers to the 11 million now traveling along the Washington-Boston corridor.

Mr. Downs says that if the trains succeed on the Northeast corridor route, other states now considering high-speed rail may get serious. Florida is pursuing a high-speed train route between Miami and Orlando, and California is studying routes between San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

"I think as these first sets come on line and they demonstrate their commercial success, you're going to see ... other parts of the country signing up," Downs says, adding that this could mean even more jobs for Plattsburgh. "A number of folks say that whoever got the Northeast corridor contract would probably be the dominant supplier for high-speed rail in the future."

Bombardier had been considering 13 other US cities when it chose to build its plant in Plattsburgh. Skilled workers - including those laid off by the Air Force - were a strong draw, says David M. Cuttler, manager of Bombardier's Plattsburgh plant.

One of those workers will be Joe Laporte, who built aircraft for the Air Force for most of his life. He was hired by Bombardier four days after the Air Force cut him loose. "It's really great for the Plattsburgh area because there weren't corporations like this offering us jobs," he says, taking a break from assembling a monorail train for the city of Jacksonville, Fla. "It's definitely a new beginning for the town."

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