Pittsburgh-to-Harrisburg Amtrak route may end

Service called too slow to justify hefty subsidy

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One of Pittsburgh's two remaining Amtrak routes, the one serving Harrisburg, Philadelphia, New York and points in between, may be on the chopping block come October.

That's the deadline for Pennsylvania to decide whether to foot the estimated $5.7 million bill for subsidizing the service, a cost currently paid by Amtrak.

No decision has been made but remarks from Pennsylvania Department of Transportation officials indicate that the route is in trouble unless it can be shown to benefit large numbers of passengers connecting at Pittsburgh to or from cities other than Harrisburg.

"If you look purely at that (Pittsburgh-to-Harrisburg) segment, it is hard to justify," PennDOT spokeswoman Erin Waters-Trasatt said. She noted that it is much faster to drive between the two cities than to take the 51/2-hour train trip.

Elimination of the route would end Amtrak service to Greensburg, Latrobe, Johnstown, Altoona, Tyrone, Huntingdon and Lewistown. It would leave Pittsburgh with no direct passenger train connections to Philadelphia and New York. Only one Amtrak route, the Capitol Limited from Chicago to Washington, D.C., would continue to stop here.

The funding change is mandated by the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008, which required Amtrak to develop and implement a consistent formula for sharing costs with states on corridor routes of 750 miles or shorter.

PennDOT currently spends about $9 million to subsidize the much faster and healthier Amtrak service connecting Harrisburg and Philadelphia, which has 14 daily trips operating at speeds up to 110 mph on electrified track that has received more than $150 million in upgrades.

The state does not subsidize Pittsburgh-Harrisburg service, which has one daily trip in each direction and slower-moving diesel locomotives that go no faster than 70 mph and average 45 mph.

PennDOT estimates that the annual cost to subsidize both segments of what is known as the Pennsylvanian route starting Oct. 1 would be $19.2 million, with $5.7 million of that allocated to Pittsburgh-to-Harrisburg.

While Amtrak has been on a roll with record ridership in nine of the last 10 years, traffic in and out of Pittsburgh has been in decline. Some 142,800 people boarded or disembarked here from Pennsylvanian or Capitol Limited trains in the year ended Oct. 1, 2008; that number fell to about 129,400 in the year ended last Oct. 1.

Systemwide, Amtrak ridership rose 3.5 percent last year; Pittsburgh ridership was down 3.3 percent.

Amtrak could not provide separate figures for Pittsburgh-to-Harrisburg ridership. If half of the Pittsburgh riders use that service, the proposed subsidy amounts to $88 per rider, well above the current $40 ticket price.

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, PennDOT deputy secretary Toby Fauver said of the Pittsburgh-to-Harrisburg segment, "It is a struggle for me to want to pay for that service."

Ms. Waters said "significant investment" in track and equipment upgrades would be required to make the service more attractive. A $1.5 million study of possible improvements, funded with federal and state money, is under way but not yet complete.

She said the decision on whether to keep the service will not factor into Gov. Tom Corbett's budget proposal this week but will be made later. "It's a constantly evolving discussion," she said.

The service could be saved if it is shown to benefit large numbers of riders connecting in Pittsburgh to trains bound for Chicago or Washington, D.C., she said. That could lead to Amtrak absorbing more of the cost, reducing the state's contribution.

Current Amtrak schedules aren't very accommodating to those who want to transfer, with layovers ranging from four to nearly nine hours.

Passenger rail advocates said they have begun a campaign to save the service.

"We're very concerned about this issue," said Michael Alexander, president of Western Pennsylvanians for Passenger Rail. "We're trying to mobilize people to write to their state legislators and Gov. Corbett to put whatever funds are necessary ... to pay the bill that will be coming.

"We think this train is very important. It's a link to the rest of the Amtrak system. It provides very important service for many communities," some of which have no other form of public transportation, he said.

A better idea to reduce per-passenger costs would be to add service, he said. And while the state might save money by eliminating it, the traveling public will pay more.

"The less competition there is, the higher the prices on other modes of transportation. We need more options, not less," Mr. Alexander said.

An Amtrak spokesman said talks with the state will continue, and that the railroad does not want to end the service.

"Amtrak is in the business of running trains, and we want to continue to run all the corridor services we operate today," spokesman Craig Schulz said. "Amtrak recognizes the value its service provides to local communities and we continue to work closely with PennDOT to maintain passenger rail service within the commonwealth."

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Jon Schmitz: jschmitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1868. Visit the PG's transportation blog, The Roundabout, at www.post-gazette.com/Roundabout. Twitter: @pgtraffic.


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