More than 10 years ago, Amtrak decreased the number of trains running daily from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg from two to one. Representatives from the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership traveled to the state capital this week requesting an increase.
Lucinda Beattie, vice president of transportation for the partnership, said the increase makes economic sense. Her group estimated increasing service to Harrisburg would cost $10.5-13 million and allow 400,000 new trips each year. By contrast, a mile of highway costs about $8 million.
“That is an enormous positive investment for a relatively minor amount of funding,” Beattie said.
Beattie attended an event in Harrisburg organized by the Modern Transit Partnership, which allowed her group to present their research to Gov. Tom Wolf.
“It was interesting to hear the Governor’s thoughts on the policy underpinnings of how to decide where to improve service,” Beattie said.
Mark Spada, a board member at Western Pennsylvanians for Passenger Rail, said he’s a train enthusiast, but there’s a practical aspect to his advocacy as well. He said the train currently runs at full practical capacity, which means people who want to use the service are unable to.
“There is an unmet demand right now for additional forms of transportation beyond the automobile to and from Western Pennsylvania,” Spada said. “This is an issue that affects the region.”
Spada said the state invested in improving rail service on the Eastern side of the state, and it resulted in a doubling of ridership. The Harrisburg to Philadelphia route makes 14 daily trips.
“The experience that the state has gained in operating the trains east of Harrisburg is directly applicable to west of Harrisburg,” Spada said. “You could see many of the same results.”
Beattie said PennDOT has invested money east of Harrisburg because Amtrak owns the rails. Norfolk Southern owns the track on the west side of the state, which adds another party to negotiations.
In addition to the economic argument, Beattie said increasing train travel provides environmental benefits as well.
“Passenger-rail travel is probably the most environmentally-friendly form of transportation that there is,” Beattie said. “Because you have one engine, and you can add additional cars depending on how many people are going. And you take all those riders off the turnpike.”
Beattie said increasing service has been challenging because the automobile dominates the country’s transportation infrastructure spending, but she sees hope in the number of groups advocating for better rail service in their communities.
“With increasing awareness of the environmental implications of automobile travel, and with a younger generation who are very environmentally conscious … I think attitudes about public transportation are changing,” Beattie said.
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