Pennsylvania resists financial rescue for Amtrak's Pittsburgh-to-Harrisburg run

Tom Fontaine
| Saturday, March 9, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Pennsylvania's top transportation official opposes investing $5.7 million in state money on the lone Amtrak route that rolls between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg, saying trains run too slowly and too infrequently to warrant the investment.

“That (subsidy) is pretty high when you consider it's a 5 12-hour train ride between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh,” PennDOT Secretary Barry Schoch said during a recent visit to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, adding he is trying to negotiate a lower rate.

A trip along the Pennsylvania Turnpike takes about 3 12 hours, Schoch said.

Amtrak is requesting the subsidy as part of a change in federal law that required the railroad to develop a uniform cost-sharing formula with state governments for routes of up to 750 miles. Starting on Oct. 1, Washington no longer will chip in money for operation of short-distance routes.

PennDOT doesn't subsidize Amtrak's Pennsylvanian route, a once-daily round trip between Pittsburgh and New York. Service between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg averages 45 mph as it chugs through the mountains and around Altoona's famed Horseshoe Curve, sharing a rail line owned by freight hauler Norfolk-Southern.

“It might be slower, but we travel by rail. We like it better,” said Russell Cross, 71, a retired railroad worker from Medora, Ind., who was en route to see the Altoona Curve Friday with his wife, Esta. They were among more than 300 people aboard the sold-out Pennsylvanian when it left Downtown about 7:30 a.m.

“But if we took the car, we'd probably be there by now,” Esta Cross, 63, said, shooting a glance at her husband as she grabbed a piece of luggage.

East of Harrisburg, Keystone Service trains run at higher speeds on an electrified line owned largely by Amtrak, making 14 daily round trips between the state capital and New York. Amtrak, PennDOT and the federal government spent $145 million upgrading the 104-mile line between Harrisburg and Philadelphia about seven years ago. Passenger traffic has soared since. Trains complete the leg in 100 minutes or less, reaching speeds of up to 110 mph.

Citing the shared rail line and rugged topography west of Harrisburg, Schoch said, “To get the kind of travel times where the service would be at least competitive with car trips and attract more people would be unbelievably expensive, billions of dollars.”

About 212,000 passengers, or 580 a day, used the Pennsylvanian in 2012, a Brookings Institute analysis shows. The Keystone Service between Harrisburg and New York had 1.4 million passengers, or almost 3,900 a day, last year, the analysis said.

The proposed $5.7 million subsidy for the Pennsylvanian route would amount to almost $27 per passenger, about three times as much as the $9.50-per-passenger rate for the proposed $13.5 million state subsidy for the Keystone Service route, Schoch said. The Keystone gets a $9.2 million state subsidy, covering 51 percent of its operating cost, through a previously negotiated deal.

“I would urge people to look at the magnitude of the ($5.7 million) subsidy figure in relation to other transportation costs,” said Michael Alexander, president of Western Pennsylvanians for Passenger Rail, noting PennDOT is spending a similar amount to replace a Curry Hollow Road bridge in Jefferson Hills. It is used by 12,500 vehicles a day, or almost 4.6 million vehicles annually.

“Is the Pennsylvanian worth as much as one bridge? I think the answer is yes,” Alexander said. “This is not about nostalgia; it's not about the romance of the rails. It's about moving people from Point A to Point B, and I believe that for many journeys, rail provides the most cost-effective, efficient means.”

Of the subsidy negotiations, Amtrak spokesman Craig Schulz said, “We are working with our state partners, including PennDOT, to maintain all the services we run today.”

Tom Fontaine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7847 or

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