Earth Matters: Railroad legislation sealing the fate of passenger travel

Passenger rail service in America is a railroad system that even Bulgaria would be ashamed of.

Those were the words of author James Kuntsler, speaking about his research and writings on urban sprawl and related transportation challenges in the United States several years ago.

Though a few years have passed since his terse remark on the plight of passenger rail, it would seem that the situation has gotten worse instead of better.

By most standards, rail transportation is woefully underfunded when compared to other modes of transportation in the United States. Despite this, five years ago, Congress passed – and the last President signed into law – legislation that would make this bad situation even worse.

The Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 will require states to pick up the subsidy for passenger rail routes of less than 750 miles, beginning in October. That means that PennDOT will have to find $5.7 million to support Amtrak’s daily Pittsburgh-to-Harrisburg route.

The emasculation of Amtrak had already helped reduce the number of trains between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg to a single trip each way per day. (Sixty passenger trains once passed through Altoona each day.) This last move has been criticized as a short-sighted policy blunder that raises the real possibility that passenger rail service may disappear from Altoona completely by this Thanksgiving.

Interestingly, the PRIIA provided considerable funding for the Northeast Corridor, setting aside over $8 billion for the section of the system that runs from Washington, through Philadelphia and to New York. But the legislation stuck the states with the tab for routes that were already in a tough spot and operating at the mercy of the freight lines that own the track.

Over 35,000 passengers got on or off the train in Altoona, Tyrone or Huntingdon last year. Another 23,000 boarded or detrained from the Johnstown station. Ridership is up 6 percent since 2010, despite the fact that the trains are old, the tracks are designed for freight trains and it takes less time to drive. The single daily train means that arrivals and departures are inconvenient for business travelers, forcing people to make overnight stays if they use the train.

Based on the national average of 1.5 passengers per car, the train is keeping 32,000 cars off the road each year, even here in the more lightly traveled Central Pennsylvania region between Huntingdon and Johnstown.

Besides being a much more environmentally sound way to travel, it is an important option for many people that have limited access to an automobile. In addition to older and lower income people, that group also includes many college-aged individuals. As Penn State Altoona continues its amazing growth as Penn State’s most requested campus after University Park, that student access is important.

Limited mass transit options inordinately penalize those that can least afford it. So in our infinite short-sightedness, we seem poised to make it more difficult to use the train.

Meanwhile, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania isn’t so sure they think anyone west of the Susquehanna deserves passenger rail access at all.

It sure seems like a funny way to run a railroad.

If you think that rail service to our region is important and a worthwhile transportation alternative, let your local legislators know your feelings. If you missed it, check out the Feb. 5 Mirror article by Ryan Brown at