Brian O'Neill: Addition of Amtrak train is up in air
September 17, 2015 12:00 AM
Darrell Sapp/Pittsburgh Post Gazette
Pittsburgh could use more trains like this.
By Brian O'Neill / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The Pennsylvania State Rail Plan is as thick as an old Greater Pittsburgh phone book, but all its bureaucratic verbiage still keeps Pittsburghers mostly off the rails.
Rail service between Harrisburg and Philadelphia is phenomenal. Fourteen trains a day depart in each direction between 5 a.m. and 11 p.m., most of them reaching speeds of up to 110 mph on a dedicated line. Fast, frequent and mostly full — that’s a great rail mix.
There’s one 7:30 a.m. train a day from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg and points beyond. It takes 5½ hours to get to Harrisburg, and if you get off and would like to come back the same day, you have about 90 minutes to enjoy the state capital before your return train leaves the station.
Slow, infrequent — yet still mostly full, largely because of riders heading on to Philly and New York — that’s the train called The Pennsylvanian. If we could add a daily train or two in each direction, proponents say, ridership could more than double.
That’s easy to believe. There are no flights to Harrisburg, Turnpike tolls are extortionary, the population is aging and less keen to drive, and young adults have shown they would just as soon use their WiFi gadgets on a train or a bus as make a long, unplugged drive. As bad as Pittsburgh train service is, arrivals and departures rose more than 11 percent between 2013 and 2014 to 146,200. (That includes the Capitol Limited that stops in the darkness here between Chicago and Washington.)
A handful of rail believers made their way to the second floor of Pittsburgh’s Amtrak station Tuesday night to see and critique the state’s rail plan. It was the perfect setting for the woes of train travel. Above us was the The Pennsylvanian, the luxury-apartment building with the grand portico that once served as the former station and local headquarters for The Pennsylvania Railroad. Below us was the dingy current waiting room that could serve as the set of George Romero’s next zombie movie.
There were lots of charts and pictures and consultants but no speeches. Jennie Granger, acting director of the Office of PennPorts at the state Department of Transportation, told a small group that Amtrak has enough trains to add one round-trip a day between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh. PennDOT would have to subsidize it, as it does the eastern trains, but it’s waiting to hear from Amtrak what those costs might be.
Amtrak officials would need to talk with Norfolk Southern, the freight railroad that owns the tracks, to see when those trains could run. The eastern trains travel on an Amtrak-owned electrified line so there’s never a freight train in the way.
“I’d say this proposal is news to Norfolk Southern,’’ its spokesman David Pidgeon emailed Wednesday. “Until we have some sort of information, we can’t say whether it’s feasible.’’
Paul Pokrowka, a locomotive engineer for Norfolk Southern for 16 years and now the state legislative director for the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail & Transportation Workers union, pulled me aside at the meeting to say he doubted that Norfolk Southern officials would welcome more Amtrak service.
“They are not going to go one centimeter out of their way to accommodate the needs of Pennsylvania,” Mr. Pokrowka said. “It’s their game. We’re playing it.’’
A color-coded rail map of Pennsylvania backs that view: Amtrak’s annual ridership on the freight railroad tracks between Cleveland and Harrisburg is below 150,000; between Harrisburg and Lancaster it jumps to 150,001 to 750,000; from Lancaster to Philadelphia, it’s 750,001 to 1.5 million; and east of Philadelphia it’s above 1.5 million.
Mayor Bill Peduto wrote a letter in February asking state Transportation Secretary Leslie Richards to add two more daily trains in each direction between Pittsburgh and New York. The cost per train should decrease with economies of scale, insiders agree.
More frequent passenger rail service for Pittsburgh isn’t in the written plan. Henry Pyatt, Mr. Peduto’s small business and redevelopment manager, said that “ambition’’ should be in there even if it’s unfunded.
You can’t put your luggage on ambition. Until the state brings more balance to its eastern and western passenger rail investments, and Norfolk Southern cooperates, Pittsburgh won’t have a third of the ridership little Lancaster has.
Brian O’Neill: email@example.com or 412-263-1947.
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