For Amtrak, an exciting possibility

There has been no news yet about the progress of an expanded-passenger-rail-service study — involving only the potential for additional trips between Pittsburgh and Altoona — for which the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation hired a consultant approximately five months ago.

In September, when the study was announced, accompanying information indicated that the consultant would be gathering data on past and potential ridership and freight activities and making determinations of what trackside improvements might be necessary to accommodate more train traffic on the right-of-way owned by freight carrier Norfolk Southern.

This area’s hope at the time of the announcement was that the study might be supportive of additional passenger service between Altoona and Pittsburgh.

Such hope should continue.

Meanwhile, last week provided new justification for Altoona to keep tuned to developments on the Amtrak front. A Wall Street Journal article on Feb. 21 revealed that the passenger rail carrier was studying the possibility of switching from some of its long routes to more frequent service for populous corridors between pairs of cities.

The article reported the belief of railroad officials that “running more trains over shorter distances would allow Amtrak to better service those commercial corridors where rail can compete with flying and driving.”

It’s reasonable to believe that Amtrak could compete more effectively with other modes of transportation here if rail-travel opportunities were beefed up, rather than continuing in the current anemic condition of one train west and one train east between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg each day.

It’s difficult to increase ridership when train-travel availability doesn’t accommodate adequately the travel needs of people who otherwise would be attracted to riding a train, to free them from congested city and rush-hour traffic, high parking fees, expensive gasoline costs, wear-and-tear on their personal or company vehicles and personal fatigue.

A Mirror editorial on Oct. 3 stressed that “potential riders are being cheated by the current lack of reasonable accommodation of their travel needs — especially business travelers needing efficient transportation to Pittsburgh, Harrisburg and, beyond that, Philadelphia and other points.”

Whether the shorter-routes study on which Amtrak is embarking might be a basis for new opportunities for Altoona, Johnstown and other area points is merely a matter for conjecture at this time, but the need to pay attention is obvious.

According to the Feb. 21 Journal article, Amtrak’s long-distance trains run on 15 routes — which can stretch well over 1,000 miles — usually once a day. The article points out that those long routes can make the service unappealing for people traveling shorter distances, because of the lack of frequency of the trains.

“The demand is clearly there for additional short-corridor service throughout the U.S.,” said Richard Anderson, Amtrak chief executive officer. “The present network simply does not fit the future.”

But there’s a potential glitch. The change would require congressional approval, and Congress traditionally has defended the long-distance routes, even while lawmakers have pressed Amtrak to work to improve its financial performance.

It will be interesting to see what conclusions emanate from the study launched last year; the study is projected to be completed this spring.

But Amtrak’s latest announcement holds exciting possibilities, if the proverbial puzzle pieces fall together properly.

Area leaders should be watchful for developments and for opportunities to provide input.