Passenger rail will likely return to the Lehigh Valley next spring for the first time in close to three decades, but it’ll only be here for a day.
Amtrak is working on bringing an “inspection train” to the Lehigh Valley that would use existing freight lines to run passengers from the Valley to the New York City metro area, according to an Amtrak executive.
Amtrak has done this in the past in other parts of the country that, like the Lehigh Valley, have shown an interest in restoring passenger rail.
It’s helped bolster public support for such initiatives, and in some cases has served as a catalyst for restoring long-abandoned passenger rail routes, said Joe McHugh, Amrtrak’s vice president of governmental affairs.
“An inspection train would gather up people who are interested in this,” McHugh said, noting the round-trip excursion would give policymakers and others in the community a chance to see what passenger rail looks like. “Sometimes the best way to do it is to see it up close.”
The idea of bringing an Amtrak train up to the Lehigh Valley for the one-day trip was borne out of the RenewLV Summit for Smart Growth last Friday, according to Joyce Marin, executive director of Renew LV, an organization with a mission of promoting smart growth in the region. Exploring ways to improve transportation is part of what RenewLV does, she said.
McHugh attended to give a speech and later participated in a roundtable discussion. He suggested the inspection train during that discussion. The idea was met with applause from summit attendees, Marin said.
Among those in attendance who were particularly excited was Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski. He, along with Bethlehem Mayor Bob Donchez and Easton Mayor Sal Panto Jr., have been leading a recent charge to advance plans to bring passenger rail back to the region.
In October, the three mayors announced their support for a new Road to Rail initiative being led by the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission. The initiative will study connecting the Lehigh Valley to Philadelphia, New York, New Jersey and Harrisburg through passenger rail.
Pawlowski said his initial thinking was that any restoration of passenger rail service to the Lehigh Valley would be a monumental investment that would take more than a decade to come to fruition. McHugh debunked that theory and indicated that a less costly investment and a quicker timeline are both real possibilities, the mayor said.
“We talked about trying to reengage rail service and how we can start really getting people to understand it,” Pawlowski said, adding that he learned from McHugh that much of Amtrak’s services run on existing freight lines.
The Lehigh Valley, he said, has plenty of those.
“People forget – this is the Northeast,” the mayor said. “We’ve got more rail lines going through here than any part of the country.”
McHugh also pointed to an abundance of freight lines in the region, but added that Amtrak doesn’t own them and would need permission from the owner – both to run the inspection train and for any regular service in the future.
In the case of the Lehigh Valley, most of the lines belong to Norfolk Southern. Amtrak would need the company to give it right-of-way.
McHugh said Amtrak has a strong relationship with Norfolk Southern and believes something could be worked out.
A Norfolk Southern spokesman also said the company has a history of working with Amtrak.
“In some respects, we are each other’s landlords in that every day Amtrak passenger trains use large portions of NS track, and in turn NS uses Amtrak territory to move freight,” Norfolk Southern spokesman Dave Pidgeon said in an email. “We do work with Amtrak on special train movements if Amtrak makes such a request, but I can’t comment further at this time.”
The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation would also need to play a major role in any plans to restore service, as would the regional planning commission, the Amtrak executive said.
For the inspection train run, McHugh said he thinks a date as early as next spring is feasible.
Logistics still need to be worked out in addition to the right-of-way and other clearances, but McHugh tentatively envisions bringing an Amtrak train up to Allentown from Philadelphia.
It would depart from Allentown on a freight line with stops in Bethlehem, Easton, and possibly Phillipsburg. Under a scenario McHugh suggested, the train would continue east on freight lines and eventually connect with NJ Transit’s commuter rail lines. The train would then travel on NJ Transit’s lines into the New York City metro area.
Marin, of RenewLV, said Jersey City is one possibility for a final destination. Passengers from there could then get on the Port Authority’s PATH trains to get into Manhattan.
Pawlowski, Allentown’s mayor, said going straight into Manhattan was also discussed at the summit. A final destination of Hoboken, which has a PATH train stop, was also considered, he said.
Whatever the final destination, Pawlowski said he sees the inspection train as a way to “get from point A to point B” in the ongoing effort to bring back passenger rail, which ceased operations in the Lehigh Valley in the 1980s.
“I think it is a great way to energize the discussion and bring it to the next level,” he said. ” … One of the things we’ve struggled with is getting people to understand the rail system as well as getting people to understand (bringing back passenger rail) is not an impossible task. The rails are there. We need to build up the political will.”