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Hybrid railcar gives commuters glimpse into possible future

| Thursday, April 15, 2004

OAKMONT -- For train enthusiast Judy Kandel of New Kensington, Wednesday's trip on a self-propelled commuter railcar was a journey back to the future.

The Colorado Railcar, a hybrid between an engine and passenger car that can pull up to two additional coaches, made repeated stops outside the Chelsea Grille to take anyone who was interested on a half-hour trek to the Barking section of Plum and back.

For daily commuters, it was a chance to scope out an alternative to fighting traffic on Route 28 or riding the bus. And for public officials, it was the opportunity to show constituents that years of debate over a proposed commuter rail were evolving into something tangible.

Officials said the futuristic diesel locomotive would be the train that would along a proposed 23-mile commuter rail line between Arnold and the Strip District in Pittsburgh, taking anywhere from 300 to 600 cars per day off Route 28.

The $2.9 million railcar seats 92 passengers but has a standing capacity of 200.

It is being tested in South Florida, where state and federal officials have launched a $12.8 million, two-year demonstration project.

"There is just a lot of opportunity here," state Sen. Sean Logan, D-Monroeville, said after taking a ride on the train.

Logan said the cost of making the commuter line a reality would be slightly less than that of constructing one new mile of highway, which runs between $35 million and $50 million.

Logan and other officials, Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato among them, believe the railroad could offer economic benefits to the area in addition to alleviating traffic congestion.

"What intrigues me is that the track for the railcar is already in place," Onorato said.

Officials said improvements to existing crossings and the construction of park-and-rides would be the costliest aspects of the project.

They said more than $20 million has been set aside for the transit rail line in the state's capital fund, in addition to allocations made by PennDOT and Allegheny and Westmoreland counties.

Former Allegheny County Councilman Rick Schwartz, a Plum Democrat, said a number of other cities are looking into similar projects.

"We have the chance to be out in front of some of these places," he said.

Meantime, while she waited for the 1 p.m. trip to begin, Kandel reminisced about childhood daydreams of hopping a train in New Kensington and riding it into downtown Pittsburgh.

Sadly, by the time she was old enough for such an adventure, commuter trips between the cities were a thing of the past.

"I always looked forward to growing up and being able to do this," said Kandel. "I wish more people would stand up for this and say it was a good idea."

Before leaving for a convention in Atlantic City, the train was to take a group of public officials to Greensburg today after sitting on display at the Amtrak station in Pittsburgh on Wednesday evening.

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