It was obvious state Rep. Rick Geist was kidding when he answered "next Wednesday" on being asked Tuesday how soon money from a new federal high-speed rail plan could bring fast trains through Altoona.
But Geist, R-Altoona, wasn't kidding when he said "the future is extremely bright" for high-speed rail in western Pennsylvania.
The cause for optimism wasn't obvious from the federal announcement of the $53 billion, six-year initiative - which lacks specifics, according to U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster's spokesman Jeff Urbanchuk.
But Vice President Joe Biden made the announcement in Philadelphia, at the eastern end of the Keystone Corridor that passes through Altoona to Pittsburgh, and he highlighted the corridor in his news release on the plan.
The plan should help pull the nation toward President Barack Obama's goal of giving 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail within 25 years, the news release said.
The plan and the money it calls for distributing should couple nicely with an ongoing $1.5 million study of the western half of the Keystone Corridor from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh, said Eric Bugaile, executive director of the Republican component of the state House Transportation Committee.
"The federal money is a good sign," Bugaile said.
Bugaile, a high-speed rail advocate like Geist, hopes it will help return that leg of the corridor to something like the three-trains-a-day service the region enjoyed between about 1980 and several years ago.
That service ended after Gov. Ed Rendell shifted an Amtrak subsidy from the western to the eastern leg of the corridor because Amtrak was losing money in the east and was threatening to abandon it, Bugaile said.
Without the western subsidy, the state lost its leverage with Amtrak there, eventually leading to the loss of two trains a day and timetable changes to accommodate newly added mail-carrying duties, all of which alienated riders who could no longer depend on the service, Bugaile said.
He's hoping the study results and new money could lead to tweaks like "superelevated curves" and track bypasses in congested areas, allowing for speeds of 90 mph.
Coupled with a return to a multi-train daily schedule, that could bring the service to where it hasn't been for generations, he thinks.
During the successful period, trains averaged 45 mph, taking five hours to go between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh, he said.
"Can you imagine adding the factor of speed?" he asked.
There's plenty of room for the changes on the right-of-way, which Conrail took from four to two tracks in most areas, he said.
Things are much better already on the eastern leg, where in some sections the speed is 110 mph, Geist said.
That has led to a ridership increase of 57 percent, according to the news release.
Three grade crossings slated for elimination in projects out for bid will allow for 110 mph the whole way, Geist said.
Shuster, the chairman of the U.S. House Railroads Subcommittee, doesn't buy the Obama approach.
Shuster, R-9th District, doesn't want the Federal Railroad Administration to select routes for improvement "behind closed doors," believes "Amtrak's Soviet-style train system is not the way to provide modern and efficient" passenger service and calls for private investment instead of federal grants, he said in a news release with House Transportation Committee Chairman Rep. John Mica, R-Florida.
"Government won't develop American high-speed rail," the release stated. "Private investment and a competitive market will."
Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.