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Amtrak to add to train service

Second round-trip passenger line between Harrisburg, Pittsburgh planned

A Norfolk Southern freight train waits on a siding as an eastbound train travels through Altoona on Friday afternoon. Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski

Money for Amtrak in the recently passed Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will enable the addition of a second round-trip passenger train between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh via Altoona within the next several years.

The money will pay for passenger rolling stock, freeing up $350 million PennDOT had set aside for that equipment — allowing the money instead to fund infrastructure improvements, according to information from a news conference Friday that included PennDOT and Norfolk Southern officials.

This will permit additional passenger trains and Norfolk Southern freight trains to operate without interfering with one another.

“This is a huge piece in the puzzle for getting additional rail service in western Pennsylvania,” said state Rep. Lou Schmitt, R-Altoona, who did not participate in the Pittsburgh news conference. “It’s a once-in-a-generation opportunity.”

It will provide a “quality-of-life” enhancement that may make it feasible to take the train from Altoona to Pittsburgh or Harrisburg and return the same day — for work, for medical appointments, for shopping and for cultural and sporting events, depending on how Amtrak sets up the schedules, according to Schmitt.

The current schedule, with a westbound train stopping in Altoona in the early evening and the next eastbound train arriving the next morning, makes a one-day Pittsburgh round trip impossible, while limiting time spent in Harrisburg to a few hours.

But first, PennDOT and track-owner Norfolk Southern need to work out an “operating agreement,” laying out the needed track-related improvements and the operational details for ensuring safety and mutual efficiency, coupled with a compensation plan for use of the Norfolk line and a plan for liability protection, according to a state news release.

After the parties sign, it would take about five years to construct the improvements to eliminate eight right-of-way “choke points,” where additional Amtrak passenger operations would otherwise clash with Norfolk’s freight operations, according to the news release.

“There are still a lot of details to be worked out,” said Rudy Husband, Norfolk’s regional vice president, speaking at the news conference, which was shared on a state video link.

But it’s “doable,” if the parties work in good faith and if there’s trust, transparency and clear goals, Husband said.

The company’s recent experience in working out a passenger-freight sharing arrangement in Virginia should help, according to Husband.

The agreement will need to take into account growth in demand in the coming decades, Husband said.

Norfolk couldn’t accept an arrangement that could compromise its freight operations.

The section from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh is part of the “most important line segment” in the company’s network, because of its high volume and the “premium” traffic it carries, he said.

Conversely, a compromised passenger operation wouldn’t be successful, Husband said.

Residents and elected officials have been clamoring for additional passenger service for western Pennsylvania for years, said Jennie Louwerse, PennDOT’s deputy secretary for multimodal transportation.

It’s unclear how long it will take the parties to work out the agreement.

They want to do it as quickly as possible, but they need to “do it right,” Louwerse said.

The experience in Pennsylvania could become a pattern for passenger-freight service sharing nationwide, according to Husband.

An “operational feasibility study” completed in September calls for adding capacity to allow faster trains to go around slower ones.

That will mean strategic addition of tracks, including bypass tracks and crossover switches to ensure that trains can access all the tracks available, according to the study.

Without these changes, there would be “degradation to both Amtrak and NS operations,” the study states.

The projects necessary to ensure “line fluidity” and to avoid congestion could cost between $142 million and $171 million, according to the study.

The study calls for a second mainline through the Amtrak station in Pittsburgh; a universal crossover on three mainline tracks in Johnstown, a universal crossover on three mainlines in Portage, a third mainline track around the yard in Altoona, coupled with various other improvements; and a third mainline in Harrisburg, coupled with various other improvements.

Without the new infrastructure funding, the im­­provements needed for another passenger train might have been delayed for years, Schmitt said. Or it might have never happened.

While enthusiastic about the news, Schmitt was also cautious.

“One thing I’ve learned in Harrisburg is that it’s never a done deal until it’s a done deal,” he said.

The effort will include improvements to passenger stations, according to Louwerse.

It will also mean improvements to Norfolk Southern’s freight operations, officials said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 814-949-7038.

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