More passenger trains from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg? State legislators and advocates are still pushing

A resolution asks the state to study the cost of infrastructure updates needed to make additional service possible.

The Pennsylvanian

The Pennsylvanian

David Brossard/FLICKR
Sarah Anne Hughes

At 7:30 a.m., the 42 Pennsylvanian left Pittsburgh’s Amtrak station on time, scheduled to arrive in Harrisburg just before 1 p.m.

It’s a trip that happens daily between the Western Pa. city and the state capital, one that’s reversed only once a day with a departure time of 2:36 p.m.

The 444-mile Pennsylvanian route originates in Pittsburgh and goes to New York City, stopping in places like Johnstown, Tyrone and Altoona along the way. In fiscal year 2015, it served about 230,000 passengers.

The Pennsylvanian began in 1980 as a state-funded route to one funded by Amtrak then back to being funded by the state. That last change happened in 2013, after President George W. Bush signed a bill that required states to cover operating costs for Amtrak routes under 750 miles (except the Northeast Corridor). PennDOT ultimately agreed to pay $3.8 million that year to keep the Pittsburgh-Harrisburg line going.

That yearly subsidy from the state has apparently since dropped. PennDOT’s Elizabeth Bonini testified to a House committee in August that the amount was around $1.5 million.

Since the Pennsylvanian’s reprieve from the chopping block, state legislators and transit advocates have pushed not only to keep the route but to add daily trips.

They point to the Pennsylvanian’s eastern portion, between Harrisburg and Philadelphia, which has 14 daily trains and high ridership. But there’s an important difference between the western and eastern legs of the Pennsylvanian: Amtrak owns the rails between Harrisburg and Philly, while freight company Norfolk Southern owns them from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg.

State Sen. Randy Vulakovich, a Republican who represents part of Pittsburgh, plans to introduce a resolution that would direct the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee to study the cost of infrastructure improvements needed to make two additional daily trips in each direction possible.

The language of the co-sponsorship memo is identical to language used by Republican Rep. Jeffrey Pyle to seek sponsors for a House resolution last session. That resolution was co-sponsored by 26 legislators, both Democrat and Republican.

Charlie O’Neill, Vulakovich’s legislative director, said the feasibility study would take into account how the tracks are currently used for both passenger and freight purposes. He added that train travel is growing and that it can be a cleaner method of moving both people and cargo.

Lucinda Beattie, vice president of transportation for the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, has been pushing for additional trips for years. Her hope would be for the budget committee’s report to look at existing studies and provide gross estimates for infrastructure improvements needed to make the additional trips possible.

One of those studies would likely be a 2014 report released by the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership and Western Pennsylvanians for Passenger Rail, which estimated the cost of adding additional service at between $10 million and $13 million annually. Another study from recent years, one on the feasibility of high-speed rail in Western Pa. conducted by PennDOT and the Federal Railroad Administration, estimated modest infrastructure improvements would cost $1.5 billion.

At the moment, Beattie said the partnership is trying to get co-sponsors for the Senate resolution and is “very hopeful” about the prospect of securing them.

“If it were passed this year, we might have a chance of seeing a finished study sometime next year,” she said. “We want to keep the momentum going.”

In August, Beattie told the state House Transportation Committee two additional daily trips on the Pennsylvanian would double current ridership, to upwards of 414,000 people annually. She pointed to successes in Virginia and North Carolina, states that have worked with Norfolk Southern to add passenger routes along freight company-owned tracks.

“Where there is an existing rail line and some basic rail infrastructure, implementation of additional service is not a generational aspiration,” she testified. “What is needed is political will on the part of the state and cooperation among PennDOT, Amtrak and Norfolk Southern.”

PennDOT is looking into that. In 2015, the state agency asked Amtrak to look at the cost of adding a second daily trip between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg. A spokesperson for PennDOT said via email, “We are still in discussions with Amtrak about whether a second train can be added and no details are available right now.”

Dave Pidgeon, a spokesman for Norfolk Southern, said “We are open to hearing viable proposals for passenger rail on our private freight network.” He said the company requires “a thorough feasibility study be taken to figure out the viability” of proposals.

Pidegeon couldn’t speak to specific pieces of legislation, but said the study provided for in Vulakovich’s resolution is “certainly … a start down that path.”

“Any proposal takes time and is expensive,” he said, emphasizing that Norfolk Southern must provide customers with “safe, efficient, reliable freight rail transportation” first.

Critics have long pointed out that it’s faster to drive than to take the Pennsylvanian from Pittsburgh to points east. But as Mark Spada of Western Pennsylvanians for Passenger Rail pointed out, the “train is not just for somebody who might drive on the Turnpike.”

Both Beattie and Spada believe that increased frequency is more important to the route’s usability and future than increased speed.

“This is really not a Pittsburgh-Harrisburg issue,” Spada said. It’s one that affects all of Western Pa., Central Pa. and smaller communities across the state.

“To them, the service might be even more important,” he said.