Altoona could lose Amtrak service

Altoona’s last passenger train could leave the city this year, never to return, if an approaching federal funding issue goes unresolved.

The future of the stop, along with others in western Pennsylvania – including those in Johnstown, Huntingdon and Tyrone – is in question as an October state-funding deadline draws near.

“We didn’t ask for it … but this is something we have to abide by,” Amtrak spokesman Craig Shulz said Monday.

Under the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008, passenger rail routes less than 750 miles must soon follow a uniform funding system. That means PennDOT will have to cover the full $5.7-million annual subsidy for Amtrak’s daily Pittsburgh-to-Harrisburg route.

It would be a new expense for the state, which until now hasn’t paid a dime for the route, PennDOT spokeswoman Erin Waters-Trasatt said.

“The federal government has essentially passed on the cost of services,” Waters-Trasatt said. “We haven’t had enough resources for transportation.”

PennDOT and Amtrak representatives have discussed plans for the October deadline, from extending the route beyond the 750-mile minimum to eliminating the Pittsburgh-to-Harrisburg line entirely, she said.

Service in the state’s eastern half, which runs more frequently and carries far more passengers, is also set to come under the state’s financial responsibility. PennDOT currently pays for 51 percent of the “Keystone east” segment, Waters-Trasatt said.

Changes to the western Pennsylvania route could affect hundreds of thousands of passengers, including tens of thousands who use Amtrak to arrive in and depart from Altoona annually.

In fiscal year 2012, 26,978 people entered or exited Amtrak trains in Altoona, Shulz said, as well as 3,108 in Tyrone and 5,837 in Huntingdon.

“A lot of people use it – it’s a service that a lot of people value,” Shulz said.

Waters-Trasatt stressed that PennDOT officials haven’t made a final decision; the service could still continue beyond October.

Each side seemed to place greater responsibility on the other Monday: Waters-Trasatt said it will be up to Amtrak to find alternatives if funding dries up, while Shulz said the line’s future is largely in the state’s hands.

“I would say at this point that any combination of factors could be on the table,” Waters-Trasatt said.

Among those factors are the western line’s slow speed and geographical concerns – a trip from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg is substantially faster in a car, she noted, and a faster railway would run into costly realignment and mountainous terrain.

But for travelers like Earlene Medley, who arrived in Altoona on the 5:06 p.m. stop Monday, the Amtrak line offers advantages the turnpike can’t.

“This is the first time I rode Amtrak. Why? Because it’s winter and I wouldn’t want to get stuck with my own private vehicle,” said Medley, who had left New Jersey six hours earlier for her mother’s 90th birthday celebration in Altoona.

“It got here on time. Yes it did,” Medley said. “And there were a lot of people getting off in Altoona. I was surprised.”

But her trip provided an example of the route’s possibly redundant stops: the train breezed through the Tyrone station, she said, with no passengers boarding or departing there.

The line’s possible closure would mark the end of a once-prosperous chapter in Altoona’s history. In 1911, some 60 passenger trains rolled through the city each day, according to a contemporary history.

That number has since dropped to one – a mere trickle by comparison. The last route’s possible cancellation would mean rail passengers could no longer round the famed Horseshoe Curve, a U.S. National Landmark and the subject of daily announcements to Amtrak riders.

“It’s an important service,” Shulz said. “And we’d like very much to continue it.”

Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.