Release Date: Wednesday, September 16th 2015
PennDOT asks Amtrak about adding second daily round trip between Pittsburgh, Harrisburg
By Melissa Daniels
A grinding squeal echoed as the Amtrak Pennsylvanian rolled into the Pittsburgh train station at 7:52 p.m. and about 100 passengers from points east got off, toting duffel bags and suitcases as they headed from the platform to Liberty Avenue.
This happens once a day, the only round-trip passenger train service between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg. That may change.
Plans are far from finalized, but PennDOT has asked Amtrak about possibly adding a second train on a line that once was in jeopardy of being eliminated.
For passengers such as Rachel Weber, 24, of Dormont, the train's schedule limits her ability to visit her parents in Lewistown in Mifflin County without taking time off work.
“I've been hoping they would increase (service) for years,” Weber said. “I would like to see more.”
Jennie Granger, project manager for PennDOT's state rail plan, said Amtrak is looking into what it would take to make an additional round-trip each day. The next step is checking with Norfolk Southern, which owns the line, to see whether time and space allow for a new passenger trip among frequent freight routes.
“With our existing funding, we can't afford billions of dollars of improvements, but we might be able to afford this,” Granger said. “Part of it is the negotiations with Amtrak and Norfolk Southern, and part of it is seeing what that subsidy is and gaining that support and maximizing the available dollars.”
The Pennsylvanian is one of 29 short-distance Amtrak lines receiving state funding when passenger revenue doesn't cover the costs, a setup that in 2012 almost caused the line to disappear when federal regulations began requiring state subsidies on short-distance trips. In the 2014-2015 fiscal year, PennDOT paid Amtrak $14.5 million for the cross-state Pennsylvanian and the Keystone Service from Harrisburg to Philadelphia.
Amtrak data show about 149,000 people boarded and departed trains in Pittsburgh in 2014. Spokesman Craig Schulz said even if there's a new train and Norfolk Southern can work it into the schedule, PennDOT must decide whether to add service, because it must subsidize costs that exceed revenues.
“It's a popular route,” Schulz said. “If there's an opportunity to provide more service to Pittsburgh, we're always willing and able to look at that.”
In 2011, the state's Keystone West High Speed Rail study found new infrastructure to increase speed and capacity on the mountainous 250-mile route would cost $1.5 billion to $38 billion. But that didn't stop the calls for additional service along the existing tracks.
Local officials, including Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and the Westmoreland County commissioners, urged PennDOT to add trips, citing economic growth and passenger convenience.
Western Pennsylvanians for Passenger Rail lobbied for the route's continuation in 2012. Board member Mark Spada said he is encouraged that efforts to add service are making progress. “We know it's a challenge, what we're doing,” Spada said.
His group co-sponsored a study with the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership in May 2014, which found three daily round-trips would nearly double passengers on the Pennsylvanian's entire Pittsburgh to New York City line from about 218,000 people to about 414,000.
The train departs Pittsburgh at 7:30 a.m., and it leaves Harrisburg at 2:30 p.m. The schedule makes a day trip impossible, said Amy Wise, executive director of the Huntington County Business and Industry economic development group.
Amtrak was the sole public transit option until a taxi service started three years ago, Wise said.
Juniata College students and visitors to two state prisons are frequent train passengers, she said. So are residents who use the train to get to Harrisburg, Philadelphia or New York.
“We have people that would want to commute to Harrisburg on a daily basis, and they can't do that right now,” she said.