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PennDOT, NS reach passenger train deal

$200 million fund to pay for rail lines, platform projects

PennDOT has worked out the basics of an operational agreement with Norfolk Southern for improvements needed to allow for a second daily round-trip passenger train between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh, through Altoona.

“It’s a huge milestone,” said Mark Spada, president of Western Pennsylvanians for Passenger Rail Service, an organization that has been pushing for additional trains on the Norfolk mainline for years.

PennDOT and the governor’s office issued a news release on the agreement Monday.

PennDOT and Norfolk Southern began working on the agreement after the federal government provided rolling stock money for Amtrak in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law in November, allowing PennDOT to redirect money it had saved for that rolling stock to go instead for the right-of-way improvements necessary to ensure that the additional passenger train won’t interfere with Norfolk’s freight operations.

Thus, more than $200 million from PennDOT’s Multimodal Transportation Fund will pay for upgrading rail lines, passenger platforms and communications and signal infrastructure, according to the news release.

The improvements will follow recommendations in a feasibility study completed in September that called for adding capacity to allow faster trains to go around slower ones by adding tracks, including bypass tracks, plus crossover switches to allow trains to access all the available tracks.

The work will include elimination of eight “choke points” that currently make the additional passenger train unfeasible.

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, according to the study.

In addition to the track improvements and operational changes to ensure safety and mutual efficiency, the agreement was intended to lay out a compensation plan for Amtrak’s use of the Norfolk line and a plan for liability protection, according to a state news release in February.

The parties expect a “final definitive agreement” by the end of this year, after which construction can begin, according to Monday’s news release.

The additional train should be able to start running within three years of that, according to Monday’s release — two years earlier than predicted in February.

Working out the agreement between the state and the railroad company was critical, given the need for Norfolk’s cooperation and the company’s concern for potential disruption of its freight business, according to Eric Wolf, general manager of Amtran, the city’s bus authority.

“This is a major step in the process,” said State Rep. Lou Schmitt, R-Altoona.

Adding passenger service was his top priority when he took office several years ago, Schmitt said.

The PennDOT-NS agreement calls for eastbound trains to leave Pittsburgh at 7 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. and westbound trains to leave Harrisburg at 9:41 a.m. and 4:40 p.m., according to the news release.

The new schedule should make it feasible to travel from Altoona to Harrisburg, do business or run errands or sightsee, then return on the late-afternoon train, said Dave McFarland, Blair County planning director.

It won’t be possible to do that when traveling from Altoona to Pittsburgh, but an evening outing — say a Pirates game — will be feasible with a single overnight stay in Pittsburgh, he said.

With the current schedule’s 8 p.m. daily arrival in Pittsburgh, attending a Pirates game requires spending parts of three days in that city.

When the new train begins running, it will be critical for governments and civic organizations along the right-of-way to encourage people to use the service, according to Spada, Wolf and McFarland.

The more people who use it, the more likely Amtrak and its partners will begin running additional trains, Spada said.

It has worked that way for Amtrak’s Keystone service between Philadelphia and Harrisburg, where 12 trains currently run every weekday, he said.

His organization has always hoped for three or more trains a day between Harrisburgh and Pittsburgh, and its long-range plan calls for six a day by 2040, if ridership warrants, he said.

Wolf will be retiring at the end of this year, and he and his wife, Kate, are looking forward to going on the train to New York to visit friends and see shows, he said.

McFarland uses the train periodically for family visits to the Philadelphia area, and for work-related planning conferences, he said.

The additional daily train could arrive just in time for completion of improvements at the Altoona Transportation Center, which includes an Amtrak station, Wolf said.

The city in April received a $1.29 million multimodal grant from PennDOT, which will pay 70 percent of the costs.

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

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