Brian O'Neill: Rail ridership is up — what's lacking are frequent trains
November 15, 2015 12:00 AM
The Pennsylvanian, an Amtrak passenger train line that runs between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, goes around Horseshoe Curve in Altoona.
By Brian O'Neill / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Like the 1,000-plus drivers slowing ahead of me, I figured the best way to head east across town about 3:30 p.m. Thursday was the Parkway East, and so was stuck in a one-to-a-car conga line, a long-held American tradition that seems to begin earlier each afternoon.
I called the guy waiting to meet me a couple of miles ahead on Murray Avenue and said I’d be about 10 minutes late. The irony was he leads a group looking to give Americans more choices in the way we get around.
Michael C. Alexander heads Western Pennsylvanians for Passenger Rail, a group small enough to hold its meetings in the Squirrel Hill branch of the Carnegie Library and not bother anyone. The occasion for our meeting was the recent passage in the House of a six-year transportation bill that does little more than maintain the status quo — and without funding its final three years.
House and Senate leaders hope to hash out the differences in their respective packages and send President Barack Obama a final bill before Thanksgiving. But the acronym for the Senate bill, DRIVE, is something out of an OPEC dream and all you need to know about how tough the climb is for rail advocates.
Still, for those who think options beyond driving should be entertained, “it could have been worse’’ has become something of a victory cry. Mr. Alexander helped start his group in 2009 with others who didn’t think membership in the National Association of Railroad Passengers was enough. The group helped save The Pennsylvanian, Pittsburgh’s lone daily train to Harrisburg, Philadelphia and New York, when its continued operation was imperiled in 2013.
Funny thing about train service in Pittsburgh is that, as infrequent as it is, ridership keeps going up. People keep voting with their feet to get off their feet and take the choo-choo. Arrivals and departures from the Pittsburgh station have gone from 125,200 in fiscal 2012 to about 149,600 in fiscal 2015. It was the third straight year ridership rose.
About two-thirds of Pittsburgh’s Amtrak riders take the Pennsylvanian, with the top destinations New York and Philadelphia. The other third of the ridership is on the Capitol Limited, which arrives here in the daily darkness on its way from Washington to Chicago and vice versa. Despite leaving at midnight, the Chicago train is our station’s most popular.
Of the 535 Amtrak stations, Pittsburgh is 68th busiest, which is more a measure of how poor train service is in most of the country than how good it is here. East from Harrisburg, there are dedicated Amtrak lines so busy that more than 500,000 arrive or depart annually in little Lancaster and more than 4 million in Philadelphia.
Mr. Alexander, a retired history professor, has an office in the Born Building above the 61c Cafe. He figures he devotes about 75 percent of his time to researching and writing about Roman history and 25 percent of his time to advocating for trains. He sees states such as Virginia and North Carolina putting more resources into passenger trains and sees no reason Pennsylvania can’t.
Adding two daily round trips to New York City is what his group, Mayor Bill Peduto, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, the Westmoreland County Commissioners and more than 10 other organizations advocate. If the national transportation bill shows anything, it’s that all forms of transportation are subsidized, including driving. The cost to Pennsylvania for two additional eastern trains should be the equivalent of a few miles of paved road.
Yet few even understand how uneven the rail service is in this state. The fact that there’s only one train to Cleveland each day, and it leaves at midnight and arrives around 3 a.m., wouldn’t just boggle the mind of a European. It would stun anyone living between Harrisburg and Boston.
Politicians pay attention to two things, money and votes. Those who think Western Pennsylvanians for Passenger Rail are on the right track can find them at wpprrail.org (that’s two p’s and two r’s) or by writing Michael Alexander at 1831 Murray Ave., Suite 217, Pittsburgh, PA 15217-1656.
He says the organization asks a $25 membership fee but not everyone pays. Rail money is always hard to come by.
Brian O’Neill: email@example.com or 412-263-1947.
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