Hearing to focus on future of trains

House Transportation Committee to tour Norfolk Southern’s Juniata shop

Pennsylvania House Rep. Lou Schmitt, R-Altoona, is bringing the House Transportation Committee to Altoona in August for a hearing about the future of freight and passenger trains in the state and especially in Altoona.

Schmitt said Norfolk Southern’s Juniata Locomotive Shop will be toured by state lawmakers. Norfolk Southern officials are also slated to give information during a public hearing about a new business strategy’s affect on the Altoona community and the company’s employees.

The public hearing is tentatively scheduled for 4 p.m. Aug. 28 in the auditorium of the Railroaders Memorial Museum. A committee tour of Norfolk Southern is scheduled to follow on Aug. 29.

Schmitt, a freshman member of the House, is chairman of the House Transportation Committee’s subcommittee on railroads.

Schmitt said he’s been working to organize a committee hearing in Altoona to raise the city’s profile in Harrisburg and inform his constituents about the freight and passenger rail potential, he said.

Although the format of the hearing prohibits public comment, as with all of the state committees’ hearings, the public is welcome to attend and hear testimony from Norfolk Southern regarding its implementation of precision railroading.

“We’ll have someone testify on that new business process,” Schmitt said.

He said the hearing will hopefully bear answers to questions asked by the Mirror and its readers about precision railroading and its affect on layoffs.

Norfolk Southern Railway laid off about 50 workers at the Juniata Locomotive Shop in May. Those furloughed employees included machinists, electricians, boilermakers and carmen.

The company stated targeted hiring and furloughing will remain components of its operating model to drive service and shareholder value … in keeping with the company’s “new strategic plan. That plan is precision railroading, an employee told the Mirror in May.

Last fall, the company began to work in elements of precision railroading, which has led to the “parking” of about 800 locomotives out of the system’s approximately 3,000, which would tend to reduce demand for repairs,” according to the Juniata employee.

With precision railroading, freight companies enforce stricter departures, like passenger lines, so customers need to have their loads ready on time; compose longer trains and work to fill all of the cars; keep those trains moving at higher speeds and minimize the numbers of locomotives and cars in overall use.

Schmitt said the hearing will address the impact precision railroading will have on the 600 men and women working out at that shop.

Norfolk Southern did not respond Monday for comment about the hearing.

In addition, testimony is slated from representatives of Western Pennsylvanians for Passenger Rail, who plan to speak about expanding passenger train access in Altoona, Schmitt said.

The group’s website states it is advocating for three daily trains to run between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg and continuing east to Philadelphia and New York “in an effort to connect the region, thus providing expanded travel alternatives and enhancing economic development.”

Currently there is only one daily passenger train running between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg.

“The representatives of Western Pennsylvania for Passenger Rail will be talking about what the future of passenger service may look like,” Schmitt said.

Schmitt said it was a campaign promise of his to put Altoona on the map.

“I want to showcase Altoona. I want the committee to see the Norfolk Southern operations,” Schmitt said. “I said I want to put Altoona back on the map for Harrisburg, and this is a good step for doing that.”

Schmitt said he foresees expanded passenger rail service through Altoona, but that first requires buy-in from Norfolk Southern, which owns the rails that Amtrak passenger trains would use.

“I hope we can expand passenger rail service through Altoona. I think, if we could get rail passenger in place to go to Pittsburgh early in the day, people who work remotely can live in Altoona and work in Pittsburgh. It would also allow people to live in the area and go to Pittsburgh for recreation and cultural events,” Schmitt said.

He said he believes his Altoona constituents will be excited about the potential.

“When you expand your service, demand rises. People think more about the train when there is more service,” he said.

In a span of three weeks in July, there were two Norfolk Southern train derailments around the Horseshoe Curve, on July 5 and on Friday. The causes are under investigation.

Schmitt said he was not overly concerned about the most recent derailments.

“Derailments happen in freight rail. It’s getting safer every year. Unfortunately we’ve had a couple in a short span of time. It makes it seem like a bigger problem than it really is,” he said. “Derailments are a fact of life. I don’t have any particular concern with the most recent derailments.”

Mirror Staff Writer Russ O’Reilly is at 946-7435.


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