Proposal To Expand Passenger Rail West To Harrisburg Gains Momentum

May 29, 2017

The eastern half of the state has 13 daily trains running between Harrisburg and Philadelphia and back. But once you get west of Harrisburg, things get a little trickier. There's only one round-trip train a day between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh.

Advocates and lawmakers from Pennsylvania have been working for years to add two trips a day to the schedule. And finally, the issue is seeing some acceleration in the legislature.

State Senator Randy Vulakovich has proposed SR76, a resolution that would direct the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee to undertake a nine-month feasibility study — the first step in adding more daily trips. The Senate Transportation Committee passed the resolution unanimously. Now, it goes to the full Senate for a vote.

"The hope is that at the end of the nine months, there will be a clear picture of what will be needed so that PennDOT and Amtrak and Norfolk-Southern can get together and move forward with a plan to implement service," said Mark Spada, president of Western Pennsylvanians for Passenger Rail. 

If this feels like a baby step, that's because it is — a resolution to start a study that might conclude that the stakeholders should all sit down together and discuss the possibility of expanding service. But it's a lot more traction than this issue has gotten in the past, and if the resolution succeeds, would address the first and largest road block: no one knows how much this whole thing would cost.

Government agencies like PennDOT, companies like Amtrak and Norfolk-Southern, and advocacy groups like WPPR and the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership all have their own studies that they've undertaken and numbers that they quote. WPPR estimates between $10 million and $12 million to add two more trips a day. PennDOT has quoted a cost of $3.75 million to $6 million for each additional trip. 

This nine-month period would include a review of all the existing studies on the issue to hopefully form some sort of consensus around the cost and benefits of adding two more daily trains. 

From there, it's really up to PennDOT to decide to fund the additional trains.  Norfolk-Southern, the freight rail company that owns the tracks, would also have to agree to rent additional space to passenger trains. (Amtrak owns the tracks east of Harrisburg, which is one reason there are so many more daily trains.) 

But for now, Spada and other western Pennsylvanians advocating for more passenger rail are just happy that their issue is finally getting discussed in the legislature. 

"Passing the resolution to allow the study to go forward would hopefully show the overall interest in additional service and benefits it would bring to western Pennsylvania," said Spada. 

Sen. Vulakovich told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he is confident that the resolution will pass and hopes it will get a vote before the Senate adjourns for the summer. 

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