Additional Pittsburgh-Harrisburg rail service subject of study

Tribune-Review via California Rail News

Greensburg’s stately but normally sleepy train station bustles for a few minutes twice a day as passengers board and disembark Amtrak trains during brief stops.

The state Senate wants to see what it would take to triple that activity by adding two daily passenger trains to the route linking Pittsburgh and Harrisburg.

I think it’s a great idea. Because I have said for years, we should have trains back and forth,” said Sen. Kim Ward, R-Hempfield.

She especially likes the idea of regular train service between Pittsburgh and Greensburg, allowing commuters to take the train instead of using the Parkway East and braving the Squirrel Hill Tunnel.

“We’ve been a little crippled because we have to go through those tunnels all the time,” Ward said. “I think the studies will show there will be plenty of passenger traffic on that train.”

The route currently has one passenger train, the Pennsylvanian , which travels from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg — and on to New York City — every morning and back each evening. It had 222,940 riders from October 2015 through September. Rail advocates believe it would have many more if a train or two were added to the schedule.

“We believe that there’s a lot of unmet demand between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg because there’s only one train a day,” said Mark Spada, president of Western Pennsylvanians for Passenger Rail. “We believe that the train is running at its realistic capacity. It really holds down the potential ridership because you only have a choice of one daily train.”

The Pennsylvanian route has been debated for years. PennDOT would make the final decision about whether to add trains, and there are many obstacles, spokesman Richard Kirkpatrick said.

“We welcome (the Senate) review, but there are challenges facing Pennsylvania as it weighs that second cross-state train,” he said.

The biggest issue is cost. The state pays Amtrak $2.1 million a year to run the Pennsylvanian, and early estimates show adding one train could cost another $3.7 million to $6 million annually.

There might not be enough riders to justify that cost, Kirkpatrick said.

It takes more than five hours to take the Pennsylvanian from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg, which is about two hours longer than by car. Many cross-state travelers opt to drive rather than buy a $49 ticket for a longer trip, Kirkpatrick said.

There’s also a logistics problem.

Although Amtrak owns the Pennsylvanian, Norfolk Southern owns the track, which freight trains use. It might be difficult to fit extra passenger trains into the busy freight schedule, Kirkpatrick said.

A second Amtrak train on the route was canceled in 2006 when Amtrak stopped carrying mail, Amtrak spokesman Mike Tolbert said.

“We welcome any discussion regarding additional Amtrak service,” Tolbert said.

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