Officials at the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) and Amtrak are in talks about the future of the Pennsylvanian – that’s the route from Pittsburgh to New York, which also makes stops in Harrisburg and Philadelphia. The train currently runs once a day each way. Amtrak is paying the $5.7 million to operate the route, but the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 forces Amtrak to transfer the cost of certain routes to the state. As a result, PennDOT will have to foot the bill starting in October 2013.
“We have a large transportation funding shortfall right now and we’re looking to the governor to address transportation funding in the coming weeks. But, we still need to justify, whatever the cost is, to see whether we can sustain paying that for one train a day,” said PennDOT Spokeswoman Erin Waters-Trassat.
The Pittsburgh to Harrisburg service also connects rail-riders to places in between such as Greensburg, Altoona, and Johnstown. PennDOT officials say they’re not sure the cost to run the service would equal any benefit gained, and noted ridership has been decreasing out of Pittsburgh. Amtrak said overall, service is strong.
“For the Pennsylvanian, the full route, New York to Pittsburgh, last year there were 212,000 passengers, that’s up 2.2 percent over the prior year,” said Amtrak spokesman Michael Kulm.
But, Kulm didn’t have any numbers specifically for Pittsburgh. Advocacy group Western Pennsylvanians for passenger rail said ridership out of Pittsburgh is less because the number of travel options has dwindled over the years.
“What we need to be thinking about is increasing service, not getting rid of service. The passenger demand is there for more trains, and if you had more trains, the existing infrastructure would be used more efficiently,” said Michael Alexander, president of the group.
Transportation officials will continue to work with Amtrak on next steps. They have until October first. PennDOT Spokeswoman Waters said the agency is aware of the importance of the route.
“We do recognize that it connects to other cities in the region including Chicago and Washington, DC, so that’s the context of a lot of discussions we have with Amtrak right now. It is part of a larger ecosystem, but it is a large cost on Pennsylvanians,” she said.
Waters added no decisions have been made at this time. But she said the state remains committed to building upon its rail system. However, she said there may be more efficient ways to get to Harrisburg from Pittsburgh, like by car.
18 other states are similarly affected by the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008.