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Pittsburgh to Harrisburg high-speed rail called unlikely

It might not be possible to develop true high-speed rail in the rail corridor between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg, a PennDOT official and consultant studying the line said on Monday.

"The likelihood of reaching 110 mph in this corridor is unlikely at this point," said Rick Shannon, a project manager with Philadelphia-based consulting engineering firm McCormick Taylor. "What we're really talking about is higher-speed rail."

McCormick Taylor is assisting PennDOT in a $1.5 million study of the 244-mile corridor. They are looking for ways to improve frequency and speed of service, although Western Pennsylvania's rugged terrain and freight traffic on the bustling Norfolk Southern-owned line that Amtrak trains travel are impediments.

The study began in February and is expected to wrap up early next year with a series of recommendations.

"We would like to be competitive with the automobile," PennDOT executive assistant Bob Garrett told members of the Pittsburgh-based advocacy group Western Pennsylvanians for Passenger Rail at a meeting Downtown.

Currently, passenger trains travel about 45 mph, on average, between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg, completing the trip in roughly five hours. Amtrak offers one round trip daily. Cars can do the leg about two hours faster.

Garrett and Shannon envision four hours as a goal for passenger trains -- one that requires incremental improvements over time to achieve, rather than a substantial one-time public investment.

"There probably won't be a huge pot of money," Shannon said. Garrett said spending $10 million to $25 million annually on improvements is "more plausible."

Altogether, Amtrak passengers' arrivals and departures in Pittsburgh totaled 136,333 in the 2010 fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, up about 700 from the year before. Five years earlier, local arrivals and departures totaled 110,781.

The numbers include riders using the Pennsylvanian route that goes to New York via Harrisburg and Philadelphia, as well as the two Capitol Unlimited trains that pass through the city daily; the route runs between Chicago and Washington.

"You can't really gauge demand accurately (based on ridership numbers). There just aren't enough available seats," said Michael Alexander, a Pittsburgh-based council member of the National Association of Railroad Passengers.

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