Losing Amtrak train would be rail awful

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I'm generally not a guy who complains that those in the eastern part of our state get all the goodies while we in Western Pennsylvania get diddly squat.

When it comes to rail service, though, that complaint isn't opinion. It's fact.

Between Harrisburg and Philadelphia, Amtrak trains run full, frequently and fast. There are 14 daily trips in each direction. The trains reach speeds up to 110 mph, and the service is so popular that Harrisburg and Lancaster are the 20th- and 21st-busiest stops among the nation's 500-plus Amtrak stations. (Philadelphia is third, behind only New York and Washington, but for a lot more reasons than the route from its west.)

PennDOT kicks in a $9 million annual subsidy to keep all those eastern trains rolling, a tab that's rising to around $13.5 million next fiscal year.

Here in Pittsburgh, one morning train, The Pennsylvanian, crawls its way east to Harrisburg. One evening train comes haltingly back. PennDOT is making noises about cutting them both. The reason is the $5.7 million subsidy for this stretch. Amtrak pays that now, but the tab is falling to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation come October.

In short, our rail service would be going from lousy to extinct. The rationale for shutdown would be that the low number of passengers makes the subsidy per passenger alarmingly high, yet that's a problem exacerbated by too few choo-choos, not too many. As Toby Fauver, PennDOT's deputy secretary for local and area transportation, himself has said, "Faster is cheaper."

Amtrak can get four or five trips out of train crews in Eastern Pennsylvania. And as trains fill, incremental costs go down. Pittsburgh would have many more passengers heading east if there were something more than one 7:30 a.m. train that makes seven other stops and kills 5 1/2 hours before arriving in Harrisburg.

One need only look at Lancaster. That little station between the state capital and Philadelphia had 559,000 passengers getting on and off its fast trains last year. In Pittsburgh there were just 129,000 -- though our metro area is nearly five times as large as Lancaster's.

A PennDOT study of the 250-mile western rail corridor has been running even more slowly than the train, but it's supposed to be done in the next couple of months. Adding more and faster western service would be tricky. Amtrak owns the track between Harrisburg and Philadelphia, but between here and the capital Amtrak runs its train on a Norfolk Southern freight line. It's far tougher to add trains to a busy, shared stretch, even if customers are waiting.

That doesn't mean it can't work, though. Rail travel has boomed in much of the country. Nationally, Amtrak's ridership has shot up nearly 50 percent in the past dozen years, going from 20.9 million riders in 2000 to 31.2 million in the fiscal year ending last October.

Western Pennsylvanians surely would be following that broad trend if we had the opportunities. Although ridership was down slightly in Pittsburgh last year, it rose in the five stations immediately east: Greensburg, Latrobe, Johnstown, Altoona and Tyrone.

Gov. Tom Corbett promised more money for all forms of transportation in his budget address, but in a state where the average vehicular bridge is 51 years old, money is going to be tight.

It's possible Pennsylvania is playing a game of chicken on the tracks. One rail wonk suggested to me that the threat of stopping this train might get Amtrak to make some moves that keep The Pennsylvanian running. The national system needs it to feed the Capitol Limited, which stops in Pittsburgh on its runs between Chicago and Washington. More than 19,000 passengers transferred from one train to the other last year.

Still, apart from just the general unfairness of having world-class rail service in the east and zilch in the west, scuttling The Pennsylvanian west of Harrisburg would ignore a trend Mr. Corbett just noted in his argument to expand the state lottery: the graying of our population.

Twenty years from now, a quarter of the citizenry will be 60 and older. The Pennsylvanian fills with everyone from Amish families to college students to business people, but it also appeals to retirees whose days of driving across the state are behind them. Pennsylvanians aren't getting younger, and driving anywhere -- particularly on the turnpike -- gets less appealing all the time.

We could use some trains at this end of the state, too.


Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.


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