Costs, freight service likely to keep more Pittsburgh-Harrisburg trains off the tracks |
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Joe Napsha

Two passenger trains run between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg each day. High operating costs and frequent freight trains all but dash hopes of adding another — even a shorter jaunt around the famous bend to Altoona and back.

“It really comes down to the cost-effectiveness of it,” said Jennie Granger, PennDOT deputy secretary for multimodal transportation.

There are no plans to push forward on a detailed study of adding rail service between Pittsburgh and Altoona, based on the findings of a 2019 study, Granger told state legislators last week. The cost of capital improvements alone appear to be too high, let alone what it would cost to acquire right of ways and cover maintenance costs plus additional fees which would be required to pay Norfolk Southern to access the rail lines.

It would cost at least $1.2 billion to add service on existing lines. Adding a third track for passenger trains woud cost $3.7 billion. Aiming for less than high-speed rail would cost at least $427 million — and would need approval of Norfolk Southern, which owns the tracks.

For all that money, an estimated 530 to 840 people a day would board one way, Granger said. And more than half of those would board in Greensburg for the trip to Pittsburgh.

If the state were to consider a reduced commuter service between Pittsburgh and Greensburg, the cost drops to $833 million, of which about $534 million would be devoted for a third track between the two cities.

A 2012 study projected between 1,300 and 1,500 people would board a train from Latrobe to Pittsburgh every day, with stops in Greensburg, Jeannette and Shadyside. Adding stops in Irwin and Trafford also is possible. Sixteen years from now, the study estimated that an additional 200 people would ride the commuter line each day.

Amtrak’s latest ridership figures for the Pennsylvanian’s stops show 13,634 riders boarded and departed from the Greensburg station from October 2016 through September 2017, while just 4,246 riders boarded and got off in Latrobe.

The Westmoreland County Transit Authority already operates commuter bus routes to and from Pittsburgh, Granger noted.

“Norfolk Southern is the wild card” in any plan to add rail service to Pittsburgh, said Frank Gamrat, executive director of the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy, a think tank based in Castle Shannon, Allegheny County. Simply put: “Freight pays the freight” for the railroad.

“The challenge is we’re running between 40 to 60 freight trains a day between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg,” said Rudy Husband, Norfolk Southern’s vice president for government relations. “We are really stretched for capacity on the line right now.”

The company considers the corridor critical in terms of customer service and revenue, Husband said.

Norfolk Southern is finalizing an agreement with PennDOT to conduct a state-paid feasibility study to investigate the impact and improvements that might be needed in the Harrisburg-to-Pittsburgh corridor to accommodate another round-trip passenger train, Husband said. The study, which is to include a cost estimate, is expected to be completed in about a year, Husband said.

“Additional passenger service along this route will undoubtably require substantial capacity improvements that will not come cheap,” Husband said.

Norfolk Southern wanting more money for more train service would put more stress on PennDOT, Gamrat said. That would raise PennDOT’s subsidy of the rail service at a time when the Pennsylvania Turnpike will be slashing its annual allocation to PennDOT from $450 million to just $50 million in 2022.

But, better train service would help the region’s economy, just like the 14 trains between Harrisburg and Philadelphia boost that economy, said Mark Spada, a Mt. Lebanon resident who serves as president of the group Western Pennsylvanians for Passenger Service.

That would open up opportunities for workers that does not exist with only one train from Altoona that does not arrive until 8 p.m. in Pittsburgh, Spada told legislators.

More service on the Pennsylvanian can “make it possible for someone in Greensburg, Latrobe, Johnstown and maybe Altoona to get to a job in Pittsburgh,” said Lucinda Beattie, vice president for transportation for Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership.

In the 1960s, there were 12 daily passenger trains to Pittsburgh, so people in Greensburg could commute to work or school, Beattie said. More trains could aid in the revitalization of communities along the corridor, she said.

Expecting commuters to pay more for a train trip into Pittsburgh than a bus ride would not make sense, Gamrat said. The state would have to increase subsidies to keep fares competitive.

“Taxpayers should not have to prop up a service that is dwindling in importance” in the 21st century, Gamrat said.

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