Of all the places where the train doesn't stop much anymore, Western Pennsylvania has to be the most historically jarring. It's home to the famous Horseshoe Curve and the Railroaders Memorial Museum in Altoona. It's where George Westinghouse revolutionized railroading with his development of the air brake in Wilmerding.
Yet the glories of the past have given way to a penurious present. Pittsburgh has only two remaining Amtrak routes and one of them -- linking Pittsburgh to Harrisburg, Philadelphia and New York -- may be lost come October because state officials are balking at paying a $5.7 million annual subsidy for the Pittsburgh-Harrisburg segment.
The subsidy is currently paid by Amtrak, which under a federal law has been directed to find a way to share its costs with states. As the Post-Gazette's Jon Schmitz reported, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation has made no decision yet whether to pick up this new burden, but comments by officials indicate the line is in trouble. That's a shame on several levels.
Not everybody has the resources to fly or drive. Actually, Harrisburg can no longer be reached by a commercial non-stop flight from Pittsburgh. And if the train stops, smaller communities such as Greensburg, Latrobe, Johnstown, Altoona, Tyrone, Huntingdon and Lewistown would be hurt the most. For those residents, it would be drive themselves or remain isolated from the seat of state government -- and too bad for non-drivers.
There is a build-it-and-they-will-come aspect to this debate. The trip to Harrisburg by train is long, five and a half hours, and not surprisingly ridership has been falling. But the Harrisburg to Philadelphia leg is quick, efficient and popular with 14 daily trips -- the product of a $150 million investment in electrifying the track. Western Pennsylvania deserves the same consideration.
PennDOT spends $9 million to subsidize the Harrisburg-Philadelphia link and says it would have to spend $19.2 million to support both segments of the service. In the grand scheme of things, that is small potatoes.
Pittsburgh can't be left a one-train town, the equivalent of a one-horse town. Passenger rail service is environmentally beneficial and needs to be saved and improved.