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Don't derail Pa.'s college students

| Friday, Feb. 15, 2013, 8:57 p.m.

A young college student boards a train, looking one last time at the guy she's been dating, and heads off to the big city. The train pulls slowly out of the station, carrying the student to a new career.

This scenario, along with other, less-dramatic, partings, plays out week in and week out at train stations from Greensburg to Huntingdon as college kids take Amtrak back home for spring break, to New York for an internship or just for a day trip down the line.

The recent proposal to suspend passenger train service between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg — unless Pennsylvania takes over funding of about $6 million from the federal government — is the most ill-advised proposition since someone approached James Franco to host the Oscars.

While admittedly the ridership between Pittsburgh and the capital is lower than the state's eastern corridor, the train service provided by Amtrak is a critical part of the transportation equation for Pennsylvania's colleges and universities.

The stations slated for reduced service serve colleges and universities crucial to producing the workforce necessary for the success of Pennsylvania and the rest of the country, from Greensburg (Seton Hill University) and Latrobe (St. Vincent College) to Altoona (Penn State Altoona) and Huntingdon (Juniata College).

In addition to ferrying students for campus visits, spring break trips or holidays at home, the train means freedom for countless international students studying abroad in Pennsylvania. In fact, college international offices often organize train or bus trips for international students who otherwise would be stuck in dorms on deserted campuses during breaks.

Sure, college-related traffic is not going to suddenly make Amtrak profitable. But keeping these routes viable will profit Pennsylvania tenfold beyond the $6 million in funding even if a third of the graduates produced by these institutions remain in the state to start careers or businesses.

Huntingdon has hosted passenger trains on the state's main rail line for more than a century. And in this new century, train travel is likely to increase, especially among young people.

Don't believe me? Ask parents you know whether their kids are clamoring to get their driver's licenses. According a report by The Frontier Group, “Transportation and the New Generation,” a car-crazy culture among young people will be about as rare as a mint-condition Chevy Vega.

The report cites a few reasons why this generation forsakes the Accord for the Acela:

• The cost of cars, insurance and gas makes it difficult for new workers to afford their own automobiles.

• Young professionals are flocking back to urban areas, where trains, buses and walking shoes rule.

• Technology is king for this generation. Why drive anywhere when you can be connected by Facebook or Twitter?

Let's keep the trains rolling through central Pennsylvania to serve the public and higher education.

Michelle Bartol is dean of admissions at Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pa.

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