Pennsylvanian Horseshoe Curve. Photo by Brandon Fiume.

Pittsburgh’s hopes for a high-speed passenger train were dashed years ago, along with the dream of Maglev. And it may be some time before we get to Chicago in 30 minutes via the 700 mph Hyperloop. If you want to take the train from Pittsburgh, you have one option: Amtrak. When it comes to schedule, there’s not much choice there, either.

“In the 1940s there were 24 trains a day from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg. In the 1960s there were 12 trains a day. Today there is one,” said Lucinda Beattie, vice president of transportation at the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership.

But that may be changing.

Pennsylvania Senate Resolution 76 (SR76) passed the Transportation Committee by a unanimous 15-0 vote early this month, approving a feasibility study on adding two trains per day between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg. It is up for a full floor vote on June 5.

“There is a lot of interest in bringing more train service to Pittsburgh,” said Pennsylvania Senator Randy Vulakovich (R-Shaler), who introduced SR76, along with a dozen bipartisan co-sponsors. “We know the federal government is committed to an infrastructure bill, and this study could help us be ready to apply for those funds.”

Train frequency (or lack thereof) is a major barrier to growing ridership and revenue in Pittsburgh. The 7:30 a.m. Pennsylvanian gets you to Harrisburg at 12:55 p.m., but the only train back to Pittsburgh leaves at 2:36 p.m., making an overnight stay necessary. From Philadelphia, there are 14 daily trains to Harrisburg to choose from.

And that’s not the only difference.

Last year the Pennsylvania legislature allocated $18 million for Amtrak investment. From those funds, $17 million went to the eastern part of the state, and only $1 million came to western PA. In the last 20 years, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) has spent $400 million on improving the rail line east of Harrisburg. The federal government provided $40 million to shave around nine minutes off the trip between Philadelphia and Harrisburg.

Those investments have paid off. Ridership in eastern Pennsylvania has increased more than 70 percent since 2006 and set a record of 1.28 million passengers for the 2009-10 fiscal year.

“We have to be able to demonstrate that ridership is going to increase in western Pennsylvania,” Beattie said. “The state pays the difference between what fares raise, and the operating cost Amtrak has for the train that year.”

Last year PennDOT paid $1.5 million to support the Pennsylvanian, a number that has decreased over the last three years due to higher fares and increased demand.

The feasibility study will assess information from previous research including testimony from last year’s House Transportation Committee hearing, where residents and stakeholders from western Pennsylvania voiced support for more rail service.

An amendment to SR76 also asks for a 12-month study of service between Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Chicago.

Pittsburgh’s other train, the long-distance Capitol Limited, which travels east to Washington D.C. and west to Cleveland and Chicago, is threatened by budget cuts to Amtrak’s long-distance trains. Any train over 750 miles is owned and operated by Amtrak and gets federal transportation funds to operate. The Capitol Limited has more amenities than the Pennsylvanian, including sleeper cars, a dining car, and a sightseeing lounge/café car. It also allows bicycles so passengers can access the Great Allegheny Passage trail in places like Connellsville, PA, Cumberland, MD, and Harpers Ferry, WV.

It’s not just Pittsburgh that would benefit from more passenger rail service. Towns along the route have much to gain. The Pennsylvanian stops at Greensburg, Johnstown, Altoona and several other towns before arriving in Harrisburg. Increased service would benefit business travelers, allow college students to get back and forth and provide more options for travel and tourism, not to mention create economic impact.

“Many communities between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg lack viable transportation alternatives, including bus or airline service,” said Mark Spada, president of Western Pennsylvanians for Passenger Rail. “We have an older population that doesn’t drive, and a lot of younger people who don’t want to drive.”

Even with current passenger rail service, many people prefer to drive the Pennsylvania Turnpike, which can be a dangerous, white-knuckle trip in bad weather. It’s faster by about two hours to drive to Harrisburg versus taking the train.

Pennsylvanian and Capitol Limited at Pittsburgh. Photo by Mark Spada.

Train speed is definitely a factor. Once the train reaches Harrisburg, the diesel engine is switched to electric for the trip east, allowing for higher speeds to Philadelphia. The topography makes faster trains more difficult to achieve in western Pennsylvania, but a number of recommended infrastructure improvements could help. Norfolk Southern owns the rail lines west of Harrisburg, and adding sidings (which allow freight trains to pull over for passenger trains to pass), and improving switches could make the line more compatible for both trains, relieving some of the bottlenecks.

Implementing a high-speed rail line for western Pennsylvania would be expensive. PennDOT’s Keystone High-Speed Rail Study put costs at around $38 billion.

It is possible SR76 could build momentum around efforts to expand Amtrak service to other cities. The nonprofit All Aboard Erie is planning a study on a high-speed rail line between Pittsburgh and Erie. There are also discussions on adding new stops, including one in Somerset County that could support tourism in the Laurel Highlands and a stop near the populated East End of Pittsburgh.

“One of the reasons we’re at this point is people are expressing interest in additional rail service,” said Spada. “The biggest thing they can do is contact their legislator. We want PennDOT to work with Amtrak and Norfolk Southern to implement a plan, and the more legislators that hear from their constituents, the stronger the case is for implementation.”

Once SR76 passes the floor vote it is expected to move quickly. The Legislative Budget and Finance Committee could have the study underway by the end of June.

“Taking the train used to be a luxurious experience with dining cars and entertainment. I think people are looking for that to come back,” said Sen. Vulakovich. “People want to move around and travel without driving or sitting in traffic. They want to see things from a different view.”

With any luck, more people will enjoy that view from a train.

Michele Fetting

Michele had every intention of ending up in San Francisco or Seattle but she fell in love with Pittsburgh. Spends most of her time working with nonprofits on planning and communications or running the trails. Believes clean energy is the answer. Dreams of turning her cancer blog into a Broadway show.