Freight trains, costs are hurdles for increasing Western Pa. Amtrak service |

Freight trains, costs are hurdles for increasing Western Pa. Amtrak service

Joe Napsha

If Amtrak added a commuter train into Pittsburgh on the route between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh, more than one-half of the passengers would board at the Greensburg Train Station, according to a state official overseeing multimodal transportation.

But whether Amtrak is in a position to add another westbound Pennsylvanian train to take commuters from Westmoreland County into Pittsburgh during peak ridership times will depend upon the funding and the feasibility of sharing the rails with freight trains that run on Norfolk Southern Corp.’s busy corridor.

That’s according to Jennie Granger, deputy secretary for PennDOT’s multimodal transportation, who testified Wednesday in Altoona at a hearing of the House Transportation Committee.

The recommended minimum startup commuter rail service for the Altoona-to-Pittsburgh corridor would be three to six trains in the morning and afternoon peak travel times, Granger told committee members at a two-hour hearing on improving rail service in Western Pennsylvania. She said that is based on an evaluation of other startup passenger rail systems.

While Amtrak’s Pennsylvanian train makes one round trip daily between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg, a ridership analysis found there is a potential for a trip during peak travel hours or a midday service from Pittsburgh eastbound to Greensburg or Altoona, Granger said. Past studies of the Pittsburgh-to-Altoona corridor have indicated a continued interest in expanding passenger rail service.

The way to increase ridership on the Pennsylvanian is to increase the number of trains between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg, according to Mark Spada of Mt. Lebanon, president of Western Pennsylvanians for Passenger Rail. The possibility for commuter rail service is not being fully realized in Western Pennsylvania, he said.

“One train a day (from Pittsburgh) is limiting ridership,” Spada said. By comparison, 14 trains a day run from Harrisburg to Philadelphia, he noted.

The big hurdle to increasing train service is the cost at a time when the Pennsylvania Turnpike will be reducing its allocation to PennDOT from $450 million annually to $50 million in 2022.

“We can’t meet all the desired services or expansions that the committee’s constituents want,” Granger said.

A study has estimated it would cost from $1.2 billion, and up to $3.7 billion, if a third track was dedicated to passenger trains.

But those estimates do not include maintenance costs, acquiring rights of way if a third track is built and payments to Norfolk Southern, for a projected daily one-way ridership of 531 to 840 passengers.

PennDOT and Norfolk Southern are finalizing an agreement for PennDOT to pay the railroad to conduct a feasibility study on the Pittsburgh-to-Altoona corridor. That study could take 10 months to a year, Granger said.

Norfolk Southern is not opposed to increasing passenger service between Pittsburgh and Altoona, “but it is just incredibly complicated,” said Rudy Husband, a Norfolk Southern vice president for government relations. Norfolk Southern runs 40 to 60 freight trains daily between Pittsburgh and Altoona, Husband said.

Any passenger train service has to be implemented in a manner that does not impact freight service, Husband said.

“You do not want to squeeze in passenger service in an unplanned way,” Husband said. “It is just doomed.”

Joe Napsha is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe at 724-836-5252, [email protected] or via Twitter .

Tribune-Review file
In this file photo, passengers exit an Amtrak train in Pittsburgh after coming from Philadelphia in August 2013.
Passengers board the eastbound Pennsylvanian train in Greensburg on Aug. 29.
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