Passengers rail against Amtrak cuts

When Mary Kimmel sets out to visit her great-grandchildren in Wisconsin, she buys an Amtrak ticket – about $180 for a round trip on three trains – and avoids expensive flights and lengthy car trips.

Kimmel, a former Altoona school board member, said the possible loss this year of western Pennsylvania Amtrak service would leave her, and thousands of others, unable to travel easily to faraway cities.

“It’s a black eye for Altoona. What a slap in the face to the people who built this community,” she said. “I know it seems like a little bit of money, but where else will it go?”

Pennsylvania will have to contribute an estimated $5.7 million annually for Amtrak’s Keystone West line to keep running through Altoona, Tyrone, Huntingdon and other communities. And while the decision rests largely in PennDOT’s hands, rail advocates say Gov. Tom Corbett’s proposed budget might hold the key to preserving the region’s last surviving passenger train.

Beneath the governor’s headline-grabbing transportation proposals, like a wholesale gas-tax increase, is an $80 million fund for “multi-modal” transit: bicycle lanes, airports, pedestrian paths and railroads.

“Maybe that’s a source where it could come from. … It could be a starting point for some changes,” Michael C. Alexander, president of Western Pennsylvanians for Passenger Rail, said.

Corbett’s budget proposal doesn’t include as much for transportation as many would like, Alexander said, but the $5.7 million subsidy would be enough to keep the western route alive at a time when the Harrisburg-to-Philadelphia line is held up as an intercity transit success story.

The subsidy, set to be billed to the state in October as part of a 2008 federal law, would keep the Keystone West line running at a nearly $27-per-ticket cost to taxpayers.

The subsidy is roughly the same annual cost as a single Pittsburgh-area bridge replacement carried out this year, Alexander noted.

“We’re trying to make the point that this is really not very much money,” he said. “PennDOT has been presented a bill by Amtrak – well, if you don’t pay the bill, the service is cut off just like if you didn’t pay your electricity or your cable bill.”

Among those fighting to keep that bill paid is state Rep. Mike Fleck, R-Huntingdon, who said rural communities like Huntingdon rely heavily on even once-a-day train routes.

Fleck said he’s joined other rural legislators to push for the Amtrak money in next year’s budget. With no specific line items mentioned in Corbett’s $80 million multi-modal fund, there’s an opportunity to include the subsidy before a final budget vote this summer, he said.

“There’s no big pot of money in Harrisburg, that’s for sure,” Fleck said. “But I think [Amtrak] will be, definitely, part of the proposal.”

Fleck said he often takes the train from Harrisburg to Philadelphia during General Assembly sessions. Running more than a dozen times a day at high speeds along relatively flat land, the Keystone East segment isn’t at risk of elimination.

But the western route crosses the Allegheny Mountains, with sharp turns like the famed Horseshoe Curve keeping the line slower than cars on the turnpike.

Such slow travel would render a train less likely to compete with buses or even cars on a level playing field, said Nate Benefield, director of policy analysis for the Commonwealth Foundation, a Harrisburg-based conservative think tank.

“There’s no reason why government should be funding failing business models. When you look at how much money they’re bleeding, how much they’re subsidizing per passenger, I wouldn’t say it’s successful,” Benefield said.

He said Amtrak’s system should be eliminated and left in private hands, perhaps with passenger subsidies to keep rates low for those who can’t afford more expensive transit.

But could that leave Altoona, Johnstown and other communities without any affordable means to reach other cities?

“Maybe, maybe not,” he said. “Obviously Amtrak is competing with Megabus and Greyhound.”

An east-west Greyhound line stops in Altoona on the way to Ebensburg, while discount company Megabus stops only in major cities and student hubs, like State College.

But buses and cars don’t always offer the same speed and ease of travel, said Bill Stodart of Ebensburg, a physical therapy assistant professor at St. Francis University.

Stodart, who takes the train from Altoona to New York’s Penn Station to visit his brother on Long Island, has written to PennDOT to lobby for the threatened line.

“It’s a better way to travel than a bus. … This is not a token service,” Stodart said, adding that when he boards and departs at the Altoona Amtrak station, he’s surprised at the number of passengers using the service.

Stodart isn’t the only one lobbying for trains here: On the Western Pennsylvanians for Passenger Rail website, a printable flyer labeled “HELP SAVE YOUR TRAIN” includes Corbett’s office number and a plea to contact local legislators.

On the same page appear two side-by-side photos. One, dated 2006, shows a shining Amtrak train rounding Altoona’s Horseshoe Curve; the other, dated “10/1/2013?”, shows a lonely freight engine passing the curve, with no passengers left on the line.

“We’re going to talk about it to see if there’s anything we can do to help,” said state Sen. John H. Eichelberger Jr., R-Blair, who sits on the Senate Transportation Committee. “I’m anxious to see. Certainly rail’s important to what we do in this state.”

U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-9th District, doesn’t exercise direct influence over the state decision, but his House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee holds sway over federal policy. In an email statement, Shuster stood between both sides, noting the region’s long railroad history but recognizing the state’s need for “tough budgetary decisions.”

Shuster co-sponsored the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008, which established the rule that will soon make the line Pennsylvania’s fiscal responsibility.

Despite passengers’ and advocates’ concerns, some say the demand remains high enough to preserve the train. Some 27,000 passengers entered and exited “The Pennsylvanian” in fiscal year 2012, according to Amtrak statistics.

“It’s a necessity,” Kimmel said. “It’s in my life, it’s in our lives, it’s in our forefathers’ lives.”

Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.