ABOARD THE AMTRAK PENNSYLVANIAN -- The steady rumble of steel wheels on tracks is punctuated by the wail of a locomotive horn and then, oddly, by the pop of a champagne cork.
It's 8:30 a.m., and Amanda McCoy and Kim Christen are living it up in the cafe car. On the table are boxes of a Polish pastry called paczki, orange juice and a bottle of Barefoot Bubbly.
It's mimosa time.
Ms. McCoy, of Indiana Township, and Ms. Christen, of West View, also have bread, garlic bologna, lettuce, tomato and a travel Scrabble set for the long ride. "We're veterans," Ms. McCoy says. "We know how to do it."
Like many others aboard the train, they swear by it, and recoil at the possibility that the one daily Amtrak train serving Pittsburgh and Harrisburg will be eliminated in October.
"They better not eliminate it. I would be furious. I would be so upset," says Sandy Kadylak of Mammoth, Westmoreland County, who boarded the train at Latrobe on her way to visit her daughter in Philadelphia. She rides there often, and to Lancaster, where another daughter resides. "They take it home to see me."
If the service is abandoned, "I don't know. I guess I'll drive," she says. "Or stay home."
A federal law passed in 2008 required Amtrak to develop a consistent formula for passing the costs of subsidizing certain routes to state governments.
The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation must decide by October whether to absorb the estimated $5.7 million cost of running the daily train between Pittsburgh and the state capital. Eliminating it would leave just one Amtrak route serving Pittsburgh: the Capitol Limited from Chicago to Washington, D.C.
It would end train service to these Pennsylvania towns: Greensburg, Latrobe, Johnstown, Altoona, Tyrone, Huntingdon and Lewistown. It would leave Pittsburgh with no direct passenger train connections to Philadelphia and New York.
"Many of the communities served by the Pennsylvanian receive little or even no service from any other form of public transportation. ... It is these intermediate cities and towns that will suffer the most from the end of rail service," Michael Alexander, president of Western Pennsylvanians for Passenger Rail, said in a news release urging citizens to contact their elected officials.
PennDOT officials say they have not decided what to do, but they have sounded a bit sour about having to foot the bill for a segment that was used by 146,241 riders in the fiscal year ending in October, or nearly 400 riders per day.
In a Wall Street Journal article, PennDOT deputy secretary Toby Fauver said of the Pittsburgh-to-Harrisburg train, "It is a struggle for me to want to pay for that service." PennDOT spokeswoman Erin Waters-Trasatt told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "If you look purely at that [Pittsburgh-to-Harrisburg] segment, it is hard to justify."
The train serves part of the district of U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Blair, who recently took over as chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, giving him potential leverage in the decision. He voted in 2008 for the law -- the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act -- that is shifting the cost of the service to the state.
"In this difficult economy, both the federal and state government have tough budgetary decisions to make," Mr. Shuster said in a statement to the Post-Gazette last week.
"Pennsylvania and the 9th District have a rich railroading history, and I am hopeful a solution can be worked out respecting that history while working within the financial realities of this budget climate. I am open to working with all parties involved and will aggressively work to ensure Amtrak is accountable to the Commonwealth for the services they provide, but we must also be respectful of states' rights to make decisions regarding their own budgets."
Plenty of legroom
Riders on the Pennsylvanian are quick to point out the advantages of train travel, which they say outweigh the longer travel times.
For openers, there's no stifling security, no removing shoes, no body scans, no luggage searches, no arriving two hours early. Amtrak recommends that passengers get to the station 30 minutes ahead of schedule.
Then there's the legroom, far more abundant than in airplanes, buses or cars. Coach class seats recline without imposing on neighboring passengers and are equipped with foot rests and leg rests. Within minutes of a 7:30 a.m. departure on Wednesday, many passengers were sound asleep.
Behind the four coach cars, which are outfitted with two restrooms apiece, is the cafe car, with a surprisingly expansive menu: wraps and paninis, hot dogs, pizza, burgers, cereal, pastries, a variety of snacks and candy, soft drinks, cocktails, beer and wine.
As the train rolls through the Mon Valley, passing the billowing stacks of U.S. Steel's Edgar Thomson Plant, Megan Kennedy snacks on a banana and bagel at a table in the cafe car. It is the first train trip for Ms. Kennedy, a Seattle native who moved to the North Side eight months ago to join the Pittsburgh Ballet.
"This seemed like a good option. I'm happy so far," she says. "It was really easy to get to, much more convenient than air travel. I'm surprised people don't use it more."
Passengers are permitted two carry-on bags and there is no checked luggage on this train, which is fine with Ms. Kennedy, who doesn't like to entrust her pointe shoes to baggage handlers. "That's one added stress I didn't have to worry about on this trip," she says.
"The legroom on planes ... It's like you're in a little box and can't move."
"The scenery and the seats are relaxing," says Ms. Kadylak, who uses the time on board to read, balance her checkbook "and just think about things. Sometimes it's better than traveling as a passenger in a car."
"It's convenient. You don't have to worry about the tolls, the gas," says Ms. Christen, who is on her way to New Jersey to visit her daughter. "You can walk around. On the bus, it's so limited."
"I guess I'm in love with the nostalgia of the train," Ms. McCoy says.
Joseph Shepler of Uptown, a retired Chatham University professor, is on his way to New York City for a College Art Association meeting and to visit museums and galleries.
"Getting from here to Harrisburg is very scenic, but slow," he says. "I can't tell you the last time I flew to New York. Probably when they had biplanes."
He not only wants the train saved; he thinks Amtrak should run more service between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg, even if it requires a subsidy.
"It's the most efficient way to move people. We're subsidizing highways, too," he says.
Through the windows, mesmerizing scenery scrolls by, starting with the Mon Valley's cauldron of industry and blight, transitioning to the rolling rural green of Westmoreland County and the soaring snow-dusted peaks of the Laurel Highlands.
Just west of Altoona, the train makes the Horseshoe Curve, the engineering marvel that dates to 1854. Passengers hear a prerecorded history of one of the world's most famous stretches of railroad track.
Out of the mountains, the train gathers speed and picks up the trail of the Susquehanna River.
By then, Ms. Kennedy has joined Ms. McCoy and Ms. Christen at their table in the cafe car. They interrogate her about her schooling, dance training and career. Ms. McCoy shoves pastries at everyone who passes, complaining that she doesn't want leftovers.
Peals of laughter fill the car as the sparkling wine slowly disappears. "You are having way too much fun," one bystander comments.
Ms. Kennedy spends the rest of the trip at the table, fast friends with her two travel companions.
"You won't see this happen on a plane or a bus," Ms. McCoy says.
Ahead of schedule
Belying Amtrak's reputation for being late, the train arrives in Harrisburg 18 minutes early. A return trip the next day gets to Pittsburgh 30 minutes ahead of schedule.
According to Amtrak, eastbound trains to Harrisburg arrived within 10 minutes of the scheduled time 97 percent of the time in the past year. Westbound service to Pittsburgh had an 87 percent on-time performance.
Systemwide, Amtrak has set ridership records in nine of the past 10 years and carried 31.2 million passengers in fiscal 2012.
The Pennsylvanian, for its entire Pittsburgh to Philadelphia run, carried 212,006 passengers, up 2.2 percent over the prior year. Nearly 70 percent of that ridership boarded or disembarked west of Harrisburg, according to Amtrak.
Ridership on the route continued to grow in the fourth quarter of last year, up 5.1 percent, according to the magazine Passenger Train Journal.
The section from Harrisburg to Philadelphia is thriving, with 14 daily trips compared with just the one from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg.
Amtrak owns the track east of Harrisburg, and it and the state have invested more than $150 million in improvements.
West of Harrisburg, the track is owned by Norfolk Southern. Passenger trains sometimes are delayed by freight traffic, and the curving, hilly terrain in the mountains forces trains to slow down.
The average speed from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg was 48.5 mph on this day; from Harrisburg to Philadelphia, 56.7 mph.
Amtrak ridership boarding or leaving at Pittsburgh has been in decline. Some 142,800 people boarded or disembarked here from Pennsylvanian or Capitol Limited trains in the year ended Oct. 1, 2008; that number fell to about 129,400 in the year ended last Oct. 1.
Systemwide, Amtrak ridership rose 3.5 percent last year; Pittsburgh ridership was down 3.3 percent.
Traveling at midweek in the dead of winter, the eastbound train on Wednesday was less than one-third full; the return trip on Thursday was busier but still under half of capacity.
More trains = more riders?
Traveling back to Pittsburgh from Philadelphia, where she works as a medical research coordinator, Shaler native Natalie Katchmar is surprised to learn that service between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg is in danger.
"Amtrak's pretty sweet," she says. "It's nice to be able to travel and do work at the same time."
When she travels, she alternates between driving and taking the train.
If riders have a complaint, it is the scheduling. The Pennsylvanian's 7:30 a.m. departure forces passengers to tangle with rush-hour traffic to get to the station, Ms. Katchmar notes.
The Capitol Limited's one daily departure to Chicago is at 11:59 p.m. The one trip to Washington, D.C., leaves at 4:50 a.m.
"I think it would be worth it for Amtrak and PennDOT to see if more schedule diversity might make it a more popular travel option," Ms. Katchmar says.
• Go to post-gazette.com for a slideshow of photos taken aboard the Pennsylvanian and a video report.
Jon Schmitz: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1868. Visit the PG's transportation blog, The Roundabout, at www.post-gazette.com/Roundabout. Twitter: @pgtraffic. First Published February 17, 2013 5:00 AM