Brian O'Neill: Pittsburgh could roll with more Amtrak service
April 7, 2016 12:00 AM
All aboard, OK?
By Brian O'Neill / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
I suffer from locomotive envy.
It’s an uncommon affliction, exacerbated on a trip to the East Coast over the Easter holiday. There I choo-chooed around on New Jersey Transit, New York subways and the Long Island Railroad and never had to wait very long for the next train.
Then I tried coming home via Amtrak. After first fearing I’d have to wait until Tuesday to return, a cancellation allowed me to snag the last Easter Monday ticket on The Pennsylvanian, the only train to Pittsburgh. Before I could board in Paoli, about 20 miles west of Philadelphia, conductors had to boot a handful of people to make room for me and the college students heading back to Pittsburgh.
Some who had to get off, accustomed as they were to trains that leave every half hour via SEPTA (Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority), appeared baffled. They had trouble grasping how a train could be a once-in-24-hours opportunity for anyone.
Only one a day? Really?
Yeah. And ours is slow, too.
I was informed later that this was the first time reserved ticketing was required during the Easter holiday. That’s something Amtrak previously had experienced only at Thanksgiving. Having to shuffle through several cars before finding a seat is additional evidence that as infrequent and slow as the Pittsburgh train is, its market is captive and growing.
I’ve used this space to lament the uneven nature of Pennsylvania train travel before. Between Harrisburg and Philadelphia, Amtrak trains depart in each direction 14 times a day between 5 a.m. and 11 p.m., most of them reaching speeds of 110 mph on a dedicated line.
Here we just have the one train that takes 5½ hours to get from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg on a line shared with Norfolk Southern freight operations. PennDOT has been talking with Amtrak about adding a second Pittsburgh-Harrisburg train, but the conversation moves even more slowly than the trains.
It’s been more than six months since a PennDOT official said Amtrak has enough trains to add a trip here, yet Amtrak can’t even tell Pennsylvania how much that service would cost the state. PennDOT pays $14.5 million to subsidize Amtrak service that’s mostly east of Harrisburg.
An Amtrak spokesman emailed this week that there’s no timetable on when it might answer the question of a second Pittsburgh train. All Amtrak can say is “we are working within our resources to expeditiously provide … a thorough evaluation of additional service.’’
A second train might mean less crowding, but more important would be the increased ridership. Even a slow train would be more attractive if it’s more frequent and convenient. Western Pennsylvanians for Passenger Rail president Michael Alexander said the key is linking with one of the fast trains from Harrisburg to New York, via Philadelphia.
PennDOT understands that “increased frequency is the low-hanging fruit in budgetary terms, as compared to making the trains go a lot faster,’’ Mr. Alexander said.
Train service here still feels like something of a secret. When I last wrote of our skimpy service in November, an online commenter said when he told people he’d arrived in Pittsburgh by train, they “looked at me like I used a hot air balloon.’’
Yet our city’s arrivals and departures on The Pennsylvanian rose from 85,590 to 94,075 last year, according to the National Association of Railroad Passengers, even as gasoline prices plummeted and Megabus was offering cheaper rides to New York. The full nine-hour plus Pittsburgh-New York is the most popular ticket, with the 7½ hour Philadelphia train second.
The only other train through Pittsburgh, the Capitol Limited betweeen Chicago and Washington, saw arrivals and departures here rise from 45,748 to 53,441 in the past two years. Fully a fifth of the 223,706 riding that train to and from anywhere along the line sprang for a bed in a sleeper car.
The state’s top five Amtrak stations offer a sense of our isolation: Philadelphia, America’s third-busiest station after New York and Washington, had more than 4.1 million boardings or departures last year. Lancaster was next with 541,252; then Harrisburg, with 508,685; then Pittsburgh, with 149,587; then Elizabethtown — a community of only 11,500 between Harrisburg and Lancaster — with 109,834 arrivals and departures.
My cousin from Bristol, Pa., tells me she thinks nothing of hopping on a SEPTA train to Philadelphia for a quick Amtrak trip to Washington, returning the same day. Pittsburghers can’t even get a same-day round-trip to Lancaster.
Brian O’Neill: email@example.com or 412-263-1947.
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