Amtrak’s slow ride to Pittsburgh: It’s faster to drive


As Amtrak Train 43 chugged past Johnstown, lengthening shadows cast a melancholy pall over the town’s redbrick buildings, remnants of industrialization. Then the train plunged back into forest, where glimpses of the Conemaugh River peeked through the trees.

Final destination, Pittsburgh, was still almost two hours away.

It’s nearly 7½ hours on 350 miles of rail from Philadelphia to Pennsylvania’s big city in the west. It’s slower than an hour-and-15-minute flight or five-hour drive, and, at $47, comparable to the cost of tolls and gas on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Amtrak’s Pennsylvanian, which connects Pittsburgh with New York City for about 230,000 passengers a year, also leaves little room for flexibility.

One train a day leaves 30th Street Station for Pittsburgh, at 12:42 p.m. There’s only one return trip, at 7:30 a.m.

Better train service would mean fewer cars on the turnpike, economic development for towns on the route, and more mobility for Pittsburgh residents. A 2015 PennDot report on rail service said improvements to the existing line would also likely draw riders from east of Harrisburg.better train service would mean fewer cars on the turnpike, economic development for towns on the route, and more mobility for Pittsburgh residents. A 2015 PennDot report on rail service said improvements to the existing line would also likely draw riders from east of Harrisburg.

Geography and track rights are the obstacles to better rail service in Pennsylvania. As far back as the 19th century, industrialists were frustrated by the current rail route. The trip’s most famous stretch is Horseshoe Curve, a scenic bend around a picturesque valley near Lake Altoona, but it also illustrates the problem posed by the Allegheny Mountains. In the mid-19th century, the Pennsylvania Railroad used a route that ribboned between the mountains, rather than tunneling through them. Amtrak trains typically travel close to 80 mph, but many of those sharp turns require the train to slow. The average speed on the line is 45 mph.Geography and track rights are the obstacles to better rail service in Pennsylvania. As far back as the 19th century, industrialists were frustrated by the current rail route. The 250 miles of tracks between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh belong to the freight carrier Norfolk Southern. About 60 freight trains a day use the route. Passenger trains stop to make way for freight behemoths up to 130 cars long carrying products from the Great Lakes region to the East Coast.

The state calculated a price estimate of building a completely new track to parallel the Pennsylvania Turnpike’s more direct route to allow true high-speed travel and dismissed the option. It would cost about $88 billion in construction and land acquisition. Ironically, the turnpike was built in part on the right of way of a never-completed new rail route across the state designed to circumvent the very problems that plague the state’s rail travel today.

Amtrak believes the comfort of train travel is a major selling point compared with hectic airports or tiring drives.

Rail would seem to be a natural fit for a former industrial powerhouse nicknamed the Iron City, but it’s Pittsburgh’s new identity as a tech hub that will likely drive interest in better train service. Google, Uber, and the German engineering conglomerate Robert Bosch LLC all have offices in Pittsburgh. The route needs two more round-trips, not just one. Rail would seem to be a natural fit for a former industrial powerhouse nicknamed the Iron City, but it’s Pittsburgh’s new identity as a tech hub that will likely drive interest in better train service. Google, Uber, and the German engineering conglomerate Robert Bosch LLC all have offices in Pittsburgh. The route needs two more round-trips, not just one.

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