PennDOT to study extended services

Altoona-to-Pittsburgh may be added

There have been several studies on the feasibility of adding passenger rail service beyond the single Amtrak train that runs both ways each day between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh — none of which have led to more trains — but PennDOT, nevertheless, is taking another look.

The department has hired wsp in Philadelphia to review those previous studies, gather information on past and potential ridership and freight activities and to predict the trackside improvements that might be needed to accommodate more trains, according to a news release from PennDOT and the office of Gov. Tom Wolf.

“(T)he appetite for such service remains strong in western Pennsylvania,” Wolf stated in the news release.

The study will seek to understand “what kind of service is warranted, based on demand and what the cost of capital improvements would be,” said wsp Project Manager Anna Lynn Smith.

Unlike past studies, this one, expected to be finished in spring, will focus on the potential for additional trips between Pittsburgh and Altoona — not Harrisburg.

That limited scope reflects PennDOT’s belief that it’s better this time to take an “incremental” approach to adding service, said department spokesman Rich Kirkpatrick.

The consultant will look at demand both for work transportation — in terms of the Pittsburgh “commuter shed” — and pleasure travel, according to Smith.

Pittsburgh is about 100 miles from Altoona, hardly a comfortable daily drive, but there are commuter rail lines with a reach almost as long, including New Jersey Transit’s Port Jervis to Hoboken run, which is 86 or more miles and can take up to two hours and 35 minutes, according to Kirkpatrick and a New Jersey Transit timetable.

Johnstown is 67 miles away, and has been trying to promote a Pittsburgh commuter connection as an economic development tool, which would jibe with the potential for additional passenger rail service, pointed out State Sen. John H. Eichelberger Jr.

The Pennsylvanian is not conducive either to commuting or day trips, as it only comes through in one direction each day, with the eastbound train in Altoona midmorning and the westbound train here in late afternoon, Smith said.

The study also will look at what changes may be needed for the tracks, the equipment and the passenger stations on the busy right-of-way, which is owned by Norfolk Southern, a freight operator.

Those could include the addition of sidings to allow for trains to pass one another, station platforms on both sides of the tracks, so that passenger trains are less limited in which tracks they can run upon and perhaps additional signals and controls, Smith indicated.

The study will also seek to determine limitations on speed and how those could be overcome.

There is no intention to propose the creation of another right-of-way to accommodate additional passenger travel, according to Angela Watson, special assistant to the deputy secretary for multi-modal transportation at PennDOT.

The study will also look at labor issues.

And it will consider whether Amtrak or a private operator would be best to operate additional service, along with the potential ownership or lease arrangements for the rolling stock, Smith said.

“There are a lot of options to explore,” she said.

PennDOT’s plans please Mark Spada, president of Western Pennsylvanians for Passenger Rail.

But he thinks PennDOT’s “incremental” strategy, fixing the eastern terminus of the study at Altoona, rather than Harrisburg, is misguided.

Additional service in western Pennsylvania will only unlock its full demand potential if passengers can take advantage of service

to the east —

between Harrisburg and Philadelphia, where there are 14 two-way trains a day, Spada said.

The recent trackside improvement along that stretch, followed by increased frequency of trains has led to a vast increase in ridership, helping to support plans for station improvements at Harrisburg, Middletown, Mount Joy and Paoli, which in turn will encourage more ridership, he said.

In the news release, Wolf is quoted as saying, “I have asked PennDOT to check once again” on the feasibility of additional service.

But the idea for the study is not a gubernatorial campaign tactic, according

to Kirkpatrick.

Rather it “bubbled up at PennDOT,” he said.

“We’re in the

business of transportation,” Kirkpatrick said. That business interest goes beyond the department’s traditional focus on highways and bridges, he said.

Asked what he thinks of the study plans, state Rep. John McGinnis, R-Altoona, said he’s not a fan of “rail transportation for people.”

Moving freight by rail is great, but moving people by rail involves “too much mass to move far too little cargo,” he said.

Spada, though disappointed in the limited scope of the study, thinks that contempt for passenger rail is wrongheaded.

“It would be nice to see more trains running,” he said.

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