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Pennsylvania, Norfolk Southern negotiating 2nd daily Amtrak train between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg

A traveler walks to bard an Amtrak train ahead of the Thanksgiving Day holiday at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2021.
Matt Rourke
A second daily train between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg would make day trips easier and allow travelers another option to get from Pittsburgh to New York or Philadelphia.

Pennsylvania officials and Norfolk Southern are inching closer toward a deal to bring more passenger rail service between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg. The agreement would put a second daily Amtrak train along the railroad between the cities.

Not only would a second passenger train make day trips between the Steel City and the state capital easier, it would also give riders of the Pennsylvanian — which goes from Pittsburgh through Philadelphia to New York City — another departure time.

But the ink isn’t dry on the deal yet. PennDOT and the railway company are still in talks to determine how to add the passenger service without disrupting freight rail.

Despite the ongoing negotiations, Norfolk Southern joined Gov. Tom Wolf, Federal Railroad Administrator Amit Bose, PennDOT and local elected officials to announce the pending agreement at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Downtown Pittsburgh Friday.

Progress on the long-awaited service was made possible with a jumpstart in funding from the bipartisan infrastructure package, according to Gov. Wolf.

“Western Pennsylvania has wanted more passenger-rail service for years,” Wolf said. “This is the rare opportunity to improve an important rail corridor while laying the groundwork for more passenger-rail service in the future.”

The announcement was met with praise by Western Pennsylvanians for Passenger Rail, a nonprofit group that has been pushing for more rail service since 2012.

“WPPR has been advocating for a decade to increase and improve service to western Pennsylvania. This agreement is a necessary and important step towards achieving that goal,” said the group’s president, Mark Spada. “Enhanced passenger rail service and station upgrades have been noted around the country, including along Amtrak's Harrisburg - Philadelphia Keystone Corridor, as a catalyst for economic development, community revitalization and improved connectivity."

A proposed new schedule would have trains leaving Pittsburgh at 7 a.m. and noon. Return trips from Harrisburg would leave at 9:46 a.m. and 4:40 p.m. Currently, the Pennsylvanian leaves Pittsburgh at 7:30 a.m. and the return trip from Harrisburg leaves at 2:36.

The train ride between takes nearly five and a half hours. The additional passenger service would not affect the duration of the trip, according to PennDOT.

The deal calls for adding rail space at five rail yards that could cost between $142 million and $170 million. Crews will build additional track so the passenger train can maintain speed along the mainline and freight trains maintain the ability to slow into a rail yard or stop for a crew change or fueling.

PennDOT will fund the agreement by redirecting state Multimodal Transportation Fund dollars toward the rail improvements. The money was originally set aside to replace train sets, something now covered by the infrastructure package.

“This public-private partnership is the kind of collaboration necessary to maximize Bipartisan Infrastructure Law investments,” said Federal Railroad Administration Administrator Amit Bose. “Freight and passenger rail has and can co-exist to move goods and people, resulting in meaningful benefits to local economies and communities.”

PennDOT will also support platform improvements and better train station amenities at many of the nine stations between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg. The Harrisburg, Lewistown, Huntingdon, Tyrone, Altoona, Johnstown, Latrobe, Greensburg, and Pittsburgh train stops are on the same line.

“We want to make sure that those stations, once people can get on the train, that they’re also accessible to all users,” said Jennie Louwerse, PennDOT Deputy Secretary for Multimodal Transportation. “We want to be able to modernize these stations in a way that we’ve been able to invest in the eastern part of the state.”

PennDOT and Norfolk Southern declined to provide a specific timeline for the project, but said construction of the required infrastructure could take three to five years after an operating agreement is reached.

Norfolk Southern is interested in finalizing the deal as soon as possible, according to Rudy Husband, the company’s regional vice president for state relations in Pennsylvania. Husband pointed to Norfolk Southern’s recent partnership with the State of Virginia to expand passenger rail service last year as an example of what is possible in Pennsylvania.

“We can really be the model for freight railroads… on how we can handle passenger service,” he said.

Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.