Gloria Skillings arrived at Pittsburgh’s Penn Station from Philadelphia on a recent August evening. She opted to take the train for the scenic value and because it’s less hassle than flying.
Still, Skillings laments Pittsburgh’s Amtrak service, “It’s limited.”
She’s right. Only one train per day departs from Pittsburgh and services Harrisburg, Philadelphia, New York City, and places in between. Likewise for travellers coming from NYC. They get one shot at getting to Pittsburgh on passenger rail. The Amtrak route is known as the Pennsylvanian
A group called Western Pennsylvanians for Passenger Rail is pushing for increased service on the Pennsylvanian. They say there’s enough demand to support three trains a day between Pittsburgh to New York City and vice versa.
The all volunteer organization started gathering around four or five years ago. They wanted to fight to give Pittsburgers more travel options.
“We have a population in the city that doesn’t have cars. That lack of choice means you’re isolated here unless you have a car,” said Lucinda Beattie, a WPPR board member.
Beattie says Pittsburgh has a successful downtown and that linking to other city centers by rail is vital to its continual growth. “Its important for us to remain a competitive metropolitan area,” she said. “We have a significant student population. Students are a major audience for passenger rail.”
WPPR found that people were receptive and liked the notion of more passenger rail, but needed hard numbers to prove its viability.
The group partnered with The Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership to create a study to find out if any of their ideas were realistic. The results showed that not only is it feasible, it’s relatively affordable with an estimated price tag of $10.5 Million-$12.8 Million annually. That’s compared with the $2.6 billion Pennsylvania spent on highway and bridge projects in 2014.
The study was released in spring of 2014. Since then, WPPR and the PDP started making presentations to municipalities and other interest groups. Earlier this summer, they met with the Pennsylvania House Transportation Committee.
It was boost to their mission to meet with the policy makers who have the power to make their idea a reality. Both Democrats and Republicans who serve on that committee were receptive to increased rail west of Harrisburg. Though the Pennsylvanian is run by Amtrak, it’s primarily funded by the state and managed by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.
“There are 13 passenger rail trains per day between Harrisburg and Philadelphia,” said Beattie, who also works as Vice President of Transportation at the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership. “The challenges are getting PennDOT engaged to request extra service from Amtrak.”
She says once the state budget impasse gets resolved, the PDP and WPPR will continue to build off the goodwill generated by the House Transportation Committee meeting. Rail supporters will encourage lawmakers to engage with Amtrak and Norfolk Southern, who own the tracks between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh.
“This is where advocacy comes in.” said Beattie, saying that the cost of the proposal is so much less than many transportation projects ever pay. She says additional benefits include the fact rail is more environmentally friendly, it serves sparsely populated communities where bus service is limited, and it’s more accommodating for people with disabilities and the elderly.
More than a dozen individuals and organizations officially signed on in support of increased service on the Pennsylvanian, including Greater Pittsburgh Hotel Association, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, and Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto.
In a letter to PennDOT Secretary Leslie Richards sent earlier this year, Mayor Peduto urged the agency to enter into discussion with Amtrak about increasing service to and from Pittsburgh.
“The addition of two more trains would help increase this city’s connectivity, much of which has been lost over the past five decades, as passenger rail, bus, and airline options have been decreased,” Peduto said in the letter.
Buzz about adding train service is growing. Toby Fauver, PennDOT deputy secretary for multi-modal transportation said recently that he hopes to see one additional train between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia within the next 10 years.
Gloria Skillings, a resident of Pittsburgh for more than 40 years, says service has been limited ever since she can remember.
“I think I could remember taking a daytime train to Chicago,” said Skillings, thinking way back to her earliest days in Pittsburgh.
Travellers do have two other daily train options: a midnight train to Chicago and an early early morning train to Washington D.C.
WPPR would love for increased service on those lines too, but since it travels through several states and the District of Columbia it’s more challenging to advocate for. Right now the group is focusing on making passenger rail across Pennsylvania thrive.
Follow Western Pennsylvanians for Passenger Rail on Facebook here.