Brian O'Neill: Western Pa., still on wrong side of the tracks
May 19, 2016 12:00 AM
Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press
Amtrak's Pennsylvanian train 44, eastbound for Harrisburg and Philadelphia.
By Brian O'Neill / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
It sounds like a simple idea: Add a second or even a third daily passenger train between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg. The demand is clearly there, so let’s do it.
The operating cost to the state for tripling the service on the 204-mile stretch would be $10 million to $13 million, according to the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, which might sound like a lot until you note that it costs about $8 million to build one mile of highway.
So why is it taking Amtrak so long to give PennDOT an answer to exactly how much another train or two would cost? It has been eight months since Amtrak said it had the trains to add a trip. That’s enough time for the state General Assembly to come up with an entire budget.
OK, it couldn’t, but it still seems like a long time.
A couple of days of phone calls to Amtrak and Norfolk Southern, which owns the tracks between here and Harrisburg, betrayed no great sense of urgency to this question. There’s no reason to believe the decline of coal, oil and steel traffic on the rails is providing any opening for more passenger trains either.
The line is vital to the railroad’s operations, Norfolk Southern spokesman David Pidgeon said in an email, not just for local markets but for taking freight between the East Coast and the Midwest.
“Any additional passenger service would have to be carefully evaluated,’’ Mr. Pidgeon said, and it would take significant public infrastructure investments to accommodate Amtrak trains without interfering with the railroad’s ability to move freight.
Amtrak pays private freight railroads for the use of their tracks, doing 2.3 million train miles a year with Norfolk Southern alone, with incentives for on-time performance. Norfolk Southern isn’t willing to discuss how usage fees are determined, but it doesn’t sound as if it’s simply a matter of doubling or tripling the fees if Amtrak doubles or triples its runs on the line.
What public investments the railroad would like will be determined only “after a detailed evaluation of the proposal,’’ Mr. Pidgeon said.
In other words, where Lucinda Beattie, vice president of transportation for the Downtown Partnership, sees this as a project that’s doable and affordable, Norfolk Southern could make it less so.
Ms. Beattie said Virginia and North Carolina have been successful in recent years adding passenger trains to Norfolk Southern tracks, with a corresponding increase in ridership. PennDOT could work with the railroads to create sidings that would allow fast trains to pass slow ones, she said, and modify curves to help all trains.
Investment in rail has tilted far to the east in Pennsylvania, and it’s frustrating to be at the wrong end of the commonwealth for passenger rail. A dedicated, Amtrak-owned line runs the 104 miles between Harrisburg and Philadelphia, where trains run on the hour and reach speeds of up to 110 mph. We’ve got exactly one daily train from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg and it takes five hours and 25 minutes to go 204 miles, with its seven stops in between.
Folks say, well, eastern Pennsylvania is more densely populated. But neither Lancaster nor Harrisburg is part of the Philadelphia metro area, and those two stations were the nation’s 21st and 23rd busiest Amtrak stops last year, each with more than 500,000 arrivals and departures. Those stations hum today because PennDOT made major investments to speed up that route during Gov. Ed Rendell’s administration.
As rare and slow as the trains are in Pittsburgh, a surprising number of people still make their way through the dismal station to the platform. Arrivals and departures on The Pennsylvanian, the train whose last stop is New York via Philadelphia, rose from 85,590 to 94,705 last year.
That may have something to do with avoiding the routine humiliations of 21st-century air travel, with the shucking of shoes and so on. It could also be that Wi-Fi service makes getting to your destination as fast as possible somewhat less important to business and college travelers. Whatever the reason, there’s little doubt ridership would soar here and at stops such as Greensburg, Latrobe, Johnstown and Altoona with a couple of more daily chances to connect with those fast and frequent trains east from Harrisburg.
It’s just taking those trains an awful long time to get here.
“Those of us who work in transportation learn to wait,” Ms. Beattie said.
Brian O’Neill: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1947
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