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Western PA rail may chug off into sunset

By   /   March 6, 2013  /   2 Comments

By Eric Boehm | PA Independent

HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania has long been synonymous with railroads.

Though it probably has confused many a tourist, there is good reason why train stations in New York City and Baltimore bear the moniker “Penn Station.”  The mighty Pennsylvania Railroad was an economic force not only in the Keystone State, but across the entire northeast.

PENNSYLVANIAN: This Amtrak train through western Pennsylvania may be the last of a breed. Passenger rail west of Harrisburg will require the state to spend $6 million next year.

PENNSYLVANIAN: This Amtrak train through western Pennsylvania may be the last of a breed. Passenger rail west of Harrisburg will require the state to spend $6 million next year.

And while powerful locomotives pounding their way through the mountains of western Pennsylvania still can arouse romantic feelings for a bygone age, today’s world has largely left the railroad behind.  The last remnant of Pennsylvania’s once-widespread passenger rail network is a single Amtrak line stretching from Philadelphia westward to Pittsburgh.

Soon, it may only go about halfway.

Unless the state ponies up about $6 million to replace disappearing federal subsidies for Amtrak’s “Pennsylvanian” line — the portion of the run that connects Harrisburg to Pittsburgh — the service may be cut entirely.

The federal government subsidizes that line and requires nothing of the state, but those subsidizes will be reduced next year, leaving a $6 million gap that the state will have to fill.

Pennsylvania Secretary of Transportation Barry Schoch said Wednesday the cost of subsidizing the western portion of Pennsylvania’s Amtrak line would be $27 per rider per trip.

“We don’t intend to cancel the service, but you have to look at the taxpayer dollars also,” Schoch said of the western Pennsylvania line. “Are we going to subsidize $27 per trip for a five-and-a-half hour trip?”

The windy 444-mile trip from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh had 212,000 riders in 2012, a 32.5 percent increase since 1991, according to a recent Brookings Institute report.  But the line lost more than $7 million in 2011, the most recent year for which data is available.

The eastern half of the line is an entirely different story. It has seen a 220-percent increase since 1991 and had more than 1.4 million riders in 2012, making it one of the most traveled lines in the nation, according to the Brookings’ report.

But even the popularity of the Philadelphia-to-Harrisburg line was not enough for it to turn a profit.  It lost more than $8 million in 2011, though the higher ridership totals mean the subsidy-per-rider is lower – about $10 per rider, according to Schoch.

END OF THE LINE: The Harrisburg train station may soon be the last stop on Amtrak's service across Pennsylvania.

END OF THE LINE: The Harrisburg train station may soon be the final stop on Amtrak’s service across Pennsylvania.

The Amtrak situation is a preview of what may happen to other federal subsidies in coming years.  With $16 trillion in debt and the escalating costs of entitlement programs, the federal government likely will be forced to trim discretionary spending like rail subsidies or push those costs down to the states.

Some state lawmakers along the line say it is important to maintain service.

State Rep. Dick Hess, R-Bedford, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, attended a rally in Huntingdon County on Monday to call for retaining funding for the Pennsylvanian line.  Hess has reached out to Schoch and members of Congress to ask for the money, he said.

“We have the capability of providing funding for the Pennsylvanian in this budget proposal and it should be included,” Hess said.

But others say the cost may be too much and the benefit too small.

“I just don’t see any need for pretending that this service is ever going to come back,” said Jake Haulk, president of the Allegheny Institute, a free-market think tank in Pittsburgh. “You can’t just keep throwing money around trying to move people from point A to point B.”

Haulk said there are better options for people traveling from Pittsburgh to the state Capitol and points east, even if they would rather ride than drive.

A round trip ticket from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg costs $80 on Amtrak and the journey takes a total of 11 hours. There is only one train in each direction per day.

By comparison, a round trip ticket between the two cities on a Greyhound bus costs the same, but the full trip takes only about eight hour,s and there are at least six departures in each direction every day.

The same trip on Megabus, a discount carrier, costs $34.

The cheapest air flight between the two cities runs more than $600 and requires not one, but two layovers — in Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia — which seems more like torture than travel.

State Sen. John Wozniak, D-Cambria, lives in Johnstown and commutes to Harrisburg to legislative duties.  Though he said he has sometimes taken the train, he prefers the 2.5 hour drive to the four hour train ride.

Building a passenger-only line to decrease travel time on the mountainous route west of Harrisburg seems to be off the table. Schoch said it would cost “hundreds of millions of dollars” to build that line, money the state does not have.

“When you talk about efficiency costs, sometimes you have to look things straight in the eye,” Wozniak said.

The state is waiting to hear back from the federal government before making any decisions on funding the line’s future, according to Schoch.

The department has asked for ridership on the full length of the line — it continues past Pittsburgh all the way to Chicago as part of the “Capitol Limited” line — to be considered, which would decrease the per rider cost for the state by as much as half, Schoch said.

Contact Eric Boehm at [email protected] and follow @PAIndependent on Twitter for more.