Improvements needed to cut about a half-hour from the travel time of passenger trains between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg would cost nearly $10 billion, said a study released on Friday.
The Keystone West High Speed Rail study, which was begun by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation in 2011, looked at four options for improving service in the corridor. The route currently is served by one Amtrak train per day that requires 5 1/2 hours to go from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg or vice versa.
That is about two hours longer than a car trip between the two cities.
The favored options were a plan to modify curves within the existing railroad right of way at a cost of $1.5 billion, producing an estimated time savings of only five to nine minutes; and the $10 billion alternative, which includes curve straightening and track realignments that would be outside the existing right of way and require property acquisition.
That option would save an estimated 29 to 35 minutes per trip, the report said. If a second daily trip also was added, the report projected Pittsburgh-Harrisburg ridership would rise by nearly 50 percent.
The tracks used by Amtrak are owned by Norfolk Southern and also used by freight trains.
Adding a continuous third track to the route would push the cost to $13.1 billion but would reduce conflicts between passenger and freight trains, saving an unspecified additional amount of time, the report said. An all-new electrified passenger-only rail line between the two cities would cost more than $38 billion, which is not feasible, the study concluded.
The report acknowledged that it is “unlikely” that a comprehensive program of improvements could be done all at once and suggested that they could be made incrementally “based on need, expected benefits and funding availability.”
The findings suggest that service on the Pittsburgh-to-Harrisburg leg of Amtrak’s Pennsylvanian line will remain far inferior to the Harrisburg-to-Philadelphia section, where trains travel twice as fast.
“Obviously, it does show there are significant investment needs if we want to make those improvements,” PennDOT spokeswoman Erin Waters-Trasatt said. The next step in the process is to gather public input about the options, she said.
Henry Posner III, a Pittsburgh-based international railroad executive, dismissed the report as a “joke,” saying its intent “was to either kill the idea that this could ever happen or put it out as a job-creation scheme rather than a transportation improvement.”
“Why not focus on what passengers really want, which is frequency, not speed?” asked Mr. Posner, owner of Railroad Development Corp. Business travelers nowadays tend to be less concerned about travel time because they can work on the train, he said.
“When I go to the east I usually take Amtrak,” Mr. Posner said. “It’s like spending a day in the office.”
Michael Alexander, president of Western Pennsylvanians for Passenger Rail, a grass-roots advocacy group, conceded that the $10 billion figure, if it holds up, is “a lot of money for that benefit.”
“The way to decrease train times is usually incremental — 30 minutes here, five minutes there,” he said. “This is obviously a lot of money to spend, even over a period of years.”
A less costly way to improve service would be to increase the number of trips, Mr. Alexander said. A study commissioned by his group and the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership last year concluded that increasing to three trips per day would cost the state an estimated $10 million to $13 million per year but would nearly double ridership.
“I would stress that the frequency of service is as important to the passenger as the speed of service,” he said. “There’s a lot of merit in increasing frequency even if speed is not increased.”
The PennDOT report can be viewed at www.planthekeystone.com by clicking on the resources tab and selecting Keystone West. PennDOT is accepting public comment through the end of March at the email address KeystoneWest@planthekeystone.com.
Jon Schmitz: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1868 or on Twitter @pgtraffic.