Pittsburgh-Harrisburg Amtrak route imperiled

Unless the service can be shown to benefit many, it could be shut down.

Posted: February 05, 2013

PITTSBURGH - One of Pittsburgh's two remaining Amtrak routes, the one serving Harrisburg, Philadelphia, New York, and points in between, may be on the chopping block in October.

That's the deadline for Pennsylvania to decide whether to foot the estimated $5.7 million bill for subsidizing the service, a cost Amtrak now pays.

No decision has been made, but remarks from Pennsylvania Department of Transportation officials suggest the route is in trouble unless it can be shown to benefit large numbers of passengers connecting at Pittsburgh to or from cities other than Harrisburg.

"If you look purely at that [Pittsburgh-to-Harrisburg] segment, it is hard to justify," PennDot spokeswoman Erin Waters-Trasatt said. She noted that driving between the two cities is faster than the 51/2-hour train trip.

Eliminating the route would end Amtrak service to Greensburg, Latrobe, Johnstown, Altoona, Tyrone, Huntingdon, and Lewistown. It would leave Pittsburgh with no direct passenger train connections to Philadelphia and New York. Only one Amtrak route, the Capitol Limited from Chicago to Washington, would still stop there.

The funding change is called for in the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008, which required Amtrak to develop and implement a consistent formula for sharing costs with states on corridor routes of 750 miles or less.

PennDot spends about $9 million to subsidize the much faster and healthier Amtrak service connecting Harrisburg and Philadelphia, which has 14 daily trips operating at speeds up to 110 m.p.h. on electrified track that has received more than $150 million in upgrades.

The state does not subsidize Pittsburgh-to-Harrisburg service, which has one daily trip in each direction and slower-moving diesel locomotives that go no faster than 70 m.p.h. and that average 45 m.p.h.

PennDot estimates the annual cost to subsidize both segments of what is known as the Pennsylvanian route starting Oct. 1 would be $19.2 million, with $5.7 million of that allocated to the Pittsburgh-to-Harrisburg leg.

Though Amtrak has been on a roll, with record ridership in nine of the last 10 years, traffic in and out of Pittsburgh has been in decline. Some 142,800 people boarded or got off there 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.

Amtrak could not provide separate figures for Pittsburgh-to-Harrisburg ridership. If half of the Pittsburgh riders use that service, the proposed subsidy amounts to $88 per rider, well above the current $40 ticket price.

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, PennDot deputy secretary Toby Fauver said of the Pittsburgh-to-Harrisburg segment, "It is a struggle for me to want to pay for that service."

Waters said significant investment in track and equipment upgrades would be required to make the service more attractive. A $1.5 million study of possible improvements, funded with federal and state money, is under way but not yet complete.

She said a decision whether to keep the service would not factor into Gov. Corbett's budget proposal this week but would be made later. "It's a constantly evolving discussion," she said.

The service could be saved if it is shown to benefit large numbers of riders connecting in Pittsburgh to trains bound for Chicago or Washington, she said. That could lead to Amtrak's absorbing more of the cost, reducing the state's contribution.

Passenger rail advocates said they had begun a campaign to save the service.

"We're very concerned about this issue," said Michael Alexander, president of Western Pennsylvanians for Passenger Rail. "We're trying to mobilize people to write to their state legislators and Gov. Corbett to put whatever funds are necessary . . . to pay the bill that will be coming.

"We think this train is very important. It's a link to the rest of the Amtrak system. It provides very important service for many communities," some of which have no other form of public transportation, he said.

A better idea to reduce per-passenger costs would be to add service, he said. And though the state might save money by eliminating it, the traveling public will pay more.

"The less competition there is, the higher the prices on other modes of transportation. We need more options, not less," Alexander said.

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