No fast track to expanding passenger rail in Western Pennsylvania

    Joanne Landis (with black hat) gets ready to board an Amtrak train enroute to New York City at the Lewistown Station in Pennsylvania.  There is only one round-trip passenger train that runs from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh

    Joanne Landis (with black hat) gets ready to board an Amtrak train enroute to New York City at the Lewistown Station in Pennsylvania. There is only one round-trip passenger train that runs from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh

    But progress is happening slowly in the legislature. 

    Lewistown, Pennsylvania, sits halfway between State College and Harrisburg, nestled in the Seven Mountains. To get to Lewistown, you can drive in on Route 322, a twisty, turny, two-lane highway, where the speed limit for trucks is 20 miles per hour. 

    Or, you can take Amtrak and enjoy old-timey Lewistown Station, the first building built by the Pennsylvania Railroad, back in 1849. Today, it’s a one-room waiting area staffed by volunteers who sell sodas out of a mini-fridge and Pennsylvania Railroad memorabilia off the walls. 

    Bob Billett is one of those volunteers. If his Amtrak t-shirt and Amtrak baseball hat don’t send a clear enough message, Billett proudly calls himself a “railfan,” someone who watches and studies trains for fun. One of his unofficial duties as a volunteer is sharing that history with waiting passengers. 

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    “I tell people back in the day of the Pennsylvania Railroad, at one point, they had 40 passenger trains a day through here,” said Billett over the crackle of the scanner. “People don’t believe that, but it’s true.”

    amtrak western pa service 02Bob Billett, a volunteer at the Lewiston Station, chats with passengers about railroad history and sells snacks in the waiting area at Lewistown Station in Central Pennsylvania. (Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY) 

    Limited service

    Today there’s only one round-trip passenger train a day on the Pennsylvanian, the line that runs from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh. It passes through Lewistown going east at 11:20 a.m. and heading west at 3:45 p.m., stopping in Huntingdon, Tyrone, Altoona, Johnstown, Latrobe and Greensburg on the way to Pittsburgh. 

    A lot of people would like to see more daily trains to make day trips and commuting possible. Even Billett can barely remember the last time he rode a train — despite driving 90 minutes each way to come volunteer in Lewistown twice a month. 

    “Oh my god, back in the 90s, I know I rode Amtrak up here one day just for the heck of it, back when you could,” he said wistfully.

    There’s long been a movement to make that easy train access a reality again, and recently, it’s started to get some traction. In August, the state House Transportation committee held a hearing in Pittsburgh. PennDOT and the rail companies heard from local leaders who explained how more train service would help attract businesses, keep young residents local and give more transit options to the elderly.

    “There was a sense of a lot of momentum, because it was very clear that there is tremendous desire in our part of the state for additional service on the Pennsylvanian,” said Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership transportation director Lucinda Beattie. “The big question is, where does the money come from?”  

    Funding and feasibility

    The simple answer is PennDOT. Any rail line shorter than 750 miles is the financial responsibility of the state where it is located. But things aren’t quite so simple here in Pennsylvania.

    After a series of bankruptcies and buy-outs, the once-great Pennsylvania Railroad was divided up among different rail companies. The line east of Harrisburg into Philadelphia went to Amtrak, the passenger rail company. West of Harrisburg became freight lines owned by Norfolk Southern Corporation.

    Amtrak and Norfolk Southern serve as each other’s landlords, one renting track time for passenger trains, the other for freight trains. Norfolk Southern spokesman David Pidgeon says they are happy to help when they can, but the company’s priority is moving stuff, not people.

    “Roughly about 40 to 60 Norfolk Southern trains a day travel that corridor, so this is a critically important part of not just the Norfolk Southern network, but also, the nation’s supply chain,” said Pidgeon.

    amtrak western pa service 09From left to right: Murali Haran, a professor at Penn State, waits with his family, Indira Haran, EGP Haran, and Peirn Varadaraj for the passenger train as a freight train rolls by at Lewistown Station. (Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY)

    Norfolk Southern is planning for an increase in freight traffic over the next three decades, so the company is wary about renting more track time to Amtrak. Before they consider the proposal, they will require a feasibility study that addresses scheduling, safety and liability concerns.

    And, of course, “Norfolk Southern is a private business, so we would certainly be looking for fair compensation for the use of our private network.”   

    The railroad subcommittee in the Pennsylvania House has brought a resolution that requests funding for that feasibility study. After that, there will be a better sense of what the costs might be, whether it’s worth it, and whether PennDOT, Amtrak and Norfolk Southern would be able to strike a deal. 

    Back in Lewistown, the train has finally arrived. A few people get off and a few more hop on, with an equal number of locals just there to watch the train go by. Billett, the railfan, is one of them. He’d love to be able to hop on a train to get to his volunteers shift in Lewistown. 

    But for now, he’ll watch the train slip out of of view, lock up the station and head back to his car. 

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