The Status Of Western Pennsylvania's Passenger Rail System

Dec 14, 2015

During the last fiscal year, more than 6.1 million people reportedly traveled on Amtrak trains in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, a 1.6 percent increase from the previous year. 

Although there has been increased interest in traveling by train in Pennsylvania, many Pittsburghers have raised concerns about a lack of convenient travel times between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg. 

Pittsburgh has recently been added to the “PA Trips by Train” campaign by PennDOT to increase passenger train use and decrease road congestion by offering discounted Amtrak tickets.   

Melissa Daniels, transportation writer for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review explains that the cooperative relationship between PennDOT and Amtrak is part of a federal decision in 2008 in which Amtrak owns its trains and infrastructure, while PennDOT pays for the system. 

“The more passengers that PennDOT is able to have ride the system, the lower the cost is for PennDOT to maintain it.” 

The importance and demand for passenger train use in Pennsylvania is evident, Daniels says, but offering cheaper tickets for Pennsylvania riders will be beneficial in increasing demand, which will in turn, increase supply of trains. 

“If you can get people to ride it, that’s going to be good for the visibility of the whole system.” 

Here in the Keystone State, Daniels explains, Philadelphia is a key part of the Amtrak system. Philadelphia's 30th Street Station is the third busiest rail terminal in the country, bringing in over 4.1 million passengers in the last year.   

Pittsburgh's rail service does not approach that volume, bringing in only 150,000 of those 6.1 million passengers. Offering incentives is something both PennDOT and Amtrak have been trying to implement as another way to increase passenger rail ridership.  For example, tickets to Pittsburgh are offered as a “buy one, get one 40% off” with a free Uber ride to a hotel. 

Environmental concerns provide another incentive for riders.  Both Amtrak and PennDOT boast how environmentally friendly rail travel and moving freight are. 

“It’s about four times more environmentally friendly to have all of that freight [on a freight train] that you would otherwise be putting on a truck on an interstate into a train,” Daniels says. 

The “PA Trips by Train” program looks to increase train usage across the commonwealth, especially for those in the Pittsburgh region frustrated with a lack of options for Amtrak travel. 

“I think that just circles back to what we can look to see possibly happening in the future, which is whether or not we’re going to have more options for train travel out of Pittsburgh that would maybe be more convenient for riders.”

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