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State, Amtrak hope to fast-track passenger rail service deal

| Friday, Aug. 30, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
Passengers exit an Amtrak train in Pittsburgh after coming from Philadelphia Monday, August 26, 2013.

HARRISBURG — The Corbett administration and Amtrak are negotiating an agreement to keep rail service running from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh and Philadelphia as a deadline looms.

“Amtrak is hopeful we can continue to work with Pennsylvania to have a signed agreement in place so service can continue beyond the October deadline,” Amtrak spokeswoman Kimberly Woods said.

Under a federal law going into effect Oct. 1, Amtrak must reach new fiscal agreements with states that have rail lines shorter than 750 miles.

Amtrak has reached agreements with Texas, Virginia and Wisconsin, Woods said.

It's critical to Kirk Cless, an IT systems engineer for the Philadelphia School District, who catches the train from his home near Elizabethtown, Lancaster County, to the 30th Street Station in Philadelphia. He rides with other long-distance commuters who call themselves the “trainiacs.”

They have nicknames for particular trains such as the 5 a.m. “insane train,” the 6:30 a.m. “slacker” and the 4:45 p.m. “party train,” Cless said.

He's concerned about continued service and potential fare increases.

One advantage of commuting by train is the chance to work in a city with a higher salary base while living away from the city and suburbs, Cless said.

“It has been an amazing experience getting to know the conductors and other passengers, and I wouldn't trade it for the world,” he said.

Even if fares increase, Cless will take the train “until it's no longer cost-effective.”

Amtrak is ending its $5.5 million payment for operating the Keystone Express to Philadelphia. Pennsylvania state government now spends more than $8 million to run the Keystone.

“We pick up 100 percent of the cost,” said PennDOT spokeswoman Erin Waters-Trasatt.

Gov. Tom Corbett in March announced an agreement in which Amtrak would keep the once-daily trips between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg on track for $3.8 million.

“We're still hammering out the exact logistics,” said Waters-Trasatt, without providing details.

Pennsylvania has the passenger train funding available for the new federal fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, Waters-Trasatt said.

The concern is where Pennsylvania would get the money for the 2014-15 federal fiscal year. The Legislature must approve a transportation funding bill so there's money to keep the trains running at that time, she said.

Lawmakers in June broke for summer recess without approving a transportation bill pushed by Corbett. A key feature was raising the wholesale cap on gasoline to provide new revenue. The governor plans to seek the transportation bill's passage again when the Legislature returns to session on Sept. 23.

Brad Bumsted is state Capitol reporter for the Tribune-Review. He can be reached at 717-787-1405 or bbumsted@tribweb.com.

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