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A well-deserved plug for an efficient Amtrak operation

| Wednesday, April 9, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

My wife and I had the pleasure of looking after our granddaughter Rachael while her parents were engaged in business in the East.

They drove here from Champaign, Ill., left Rachael with us, and went on to Philadelphia and New York via Amtrak.

When we learned they were going to go by train, my reaction was negative. Most of what I have heard about Amtrak since its inception has been negative. Nonetheless, several recent articles about “The Pennsylvanian,” the train they were going to take, have been complimentary. In addition, Dr. Tony Iannichione, one of my colleagues at the university, was positive about “The Capitol Limited.” He frequently travels to Washington, D.C., and has found that rail service to be more convenient than driving or flying.

After making their round trip, Elizabeth and Mike were equally positive. I took them into the city to catch the 7:30 a.m. departure of the Pennsylvanian. The fact that there was free, 30-minute parking for “customers” was a pleasant surprise. The waiting room was modest, but adequate. It had sufficient seating, ATM machines, telephones to call taxis, vending machines, and an automated ticket dispenser. The waiting room is located under the old Pennsylvania Railroad Station, now repurposed as the prestigious Pennsylvanian Apartments.

The Pennsylvanian left on schedule and arrived at each of its destinations on time. Elizabeth and Mike were in a car that provided Wi-Fi, so we received updates on their progress. Especially noteworthy was the Horseshoe Curve; that alone would make any train buff excited. They also were able to pick out the house in which my parents resided in Gallitzin, just before I was born.

They reached Philadelphia just before 3 p.m., at which point Elizabeth got off. Mike went on to New York, arriving there at 4:50 p.m. They both were satisfied with the train trip.

According to Amtrak statistics, the Pittsburgh station had 135,000 passengers leave or arrive in fiscal 2013. Two trains a day — the Pennsylvanian and the Capitol Limited — leave Pittsburgh, for Philadelphia/New York and Washington, respectively. Two others return from those destinations each day. In addition the western extension of the Capitol Limited has one departure and one arrival each day.

The Pennsylvanian route to New York has three different parts. From Pittsburgh to Harrisburg, its daily trip is the only one available. From Harrisburg to Philadelphia, it is one of 14 daily trips each way. From Philadelphia to New York, there are 25 daily trips each way.

The same data reports that the Pennsylvanian carried nearly 219,000 passengers in fiscal 2013 – an average of nearly three hundred passengers per trip. It generated more than $10 million of revenue, about $48 per passenger. It should be noted that PennDOT subsidizes the portion of the trip within Pennsylvania at a rate of $17 per passenger.

Additional perspective comes from a comparison of passengers handled at different Pennsylvania stations. Pittsburgh's annual total of 135,000 passengers is much smaller than Harrisburg's total of 572.000; both of which are dwarfed by Philadelphia's 4,125,000 passengers. Obviously, interurban transportation by rail is big business along the Northeast Corridor. It will benefit society when we find the way to replicate that success on east-west routes.

Elizabeth and Mike had a satisfying return trip on Friday. Mike left New York at 10:52 a.m., and picked up Elizabeth in Philadelphia at 12:12 p.m.; they arrived in Pittsburgh at 7:50 p.m., 15 minutes ahead of schedule.

An interesting contrast is the experience our son had the previous weekend. We took him to the airport Sunday for dinner before an 8 p.m. flight to Washington, with a connection on to Boston. When we entered one of the two available restaurants, we realized that this was a bad decision. I made excuses for the restaurants; after all the designers of the airport didn't anticipate the implosion of services once US Airways deserted Pittsburgh. The fact that we were discussing a transportation mode that is becoming less convenient each year was highlighted later in the evening when he notified us that he had to stay overnight in Washington because of problems with his connection.

The bottom line is that Elizabeth and Mike experienced a comfortable way to go from Pittsburgh to the East Coast, one that is considerably less expensive than flying or driving, and that lacks much of the aggravation we assign to traveling. We are rooting for Amtrak and hope that the next generation can benefit from improved rail travel in this country.

John Oyler is a columnist for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-343- 1652 or

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