The Penn Station train station in Pittsburgh (GrapedApe/Wikimedia Commons)
The state of Pennsylvania and Norfolk Southern Corp. have inked a deal that will allow Amtrak to operate a second round-trip between New York City and Pittsburgh via Harrisburg each day.
Under the agreement between PennDOT and the nation’s fourth-largest freight railroad, the commonwealth will invest more than $200 million in railway and safety improvements using money from Federal Railroad Administration grants, the agency announced on Friday.
“This agreement lays the groundwork for expanded passenger rail service in Western Pennsylvania while simultaneously preserving a critical freight rail corridor,” PennDOT Secretary Mike Carroll said, noting the expansion would connect communities, reduce commuting times and boost local economies in western Pennsylvania.
Amtrak operates its Pennsylvanian service from New York to Pittsburgh with stops including Philadelphia and Harrisburg on one round-trip journey every day. The service provides important connections across Pennsylvania and beyond to Cleveland and Chicago via Amtrak’s Capitol Limited service. PennDOT did not say when the expanded service would begin.
The Pennsylvanian carried about 212,000 passengers in 2019 before ridership dropped sharply during the pandemic. In 2022, the Pennsylvanian carried about 176,000 passengers.
Between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh, the Pennsylvanian runs on tracks owned by Norfolk Southern, which operates dozens of freight trains a day over the same line.
Norfolk Southern determined in a 2020 study that adding a second daily passenger train on its Pittsburgh line would cause unacceptable delays for freight and intermodal trains.
The company determined that a second passenger train could be supported with the construction of new mainline track, passing sidings, switches and other infrastructure.
In addition to creating more options for Amtrak passengers, the agreement will make Norfolk Southern’s infrastructure more resilient for its freight customers, Senior Vice President and Chief Strategy Officer Mike McClellan said.
The agreement to expand passenger service in western Pennsylvania using Norfolk Southern’s rails has been in the works since early 2022, when former Gov. Tom Wolf and a senior company official announced it at an event in Pittsburgh.
Norfolk Southern’s study initially put the cost of the improvements at between $142.8 million and and $170.8 million, which the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported would be paid using funds PennDOT has been saving for years to buy new rolling stock for Amtrak.
The finalization of the agreement comes amid Gov. Josh Shapiro’s criticism and pressure on Norfolk Southern following the catastrophic derailment in February in East Palestine, Ohio, just across the Pennsylvania border, that released tons of toxic vinyl chloride into the environment.
As Norfolk Southern continues work to remediate the crash site, it announced Friday that it would begin to allow traffic to use the main east-west route into East Palestine at night. The road has been closed since the derailment to allow heavy trucks and equipment to travel to and from the crash site.
While Amtrak provides service between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh only once a day, the national passenger rail company operates 13 weekday Keystone Service trains in each direction between New York and Harrisburg via Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station.
That’s because Amtrak owns the Keystone Corridor line between Philadelphia and Harrisburg and controls which trains operate on them and when. The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority’s regional commuter rail service also runs on the Keystone Corridor between Philadelphia and Thorndale, in Chester County.
Passenger rail in the United States has been struggling to make a comeback since the 1970s, as the nation’s major railroads dropped passenger service in favor of more profitable and less schedule-sensitive freight routes.
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The 1970 bankruptcy of Penn Central Transportation Co., which was itself a consolidation of the struggling Pennsylvania and New York Central railroads, led Congress to create two government owned companies to ensure vital freight and passenger service continued.
The National Railroad Passenger Corp., which operates as Amtrak, took over intercity passenger services, while Conrail took control of most of Penn Central’s freight rail assets. Conrail was purchased and split up by Norfolk Southern and CSX Transportation in 1999.
While there is renewed interest in passenger rail service, Amtrak owns only the Northeast Corridor lines between Boston and Washington, D.C. and the Keystone Corridor. Elsewhere, Amtrak must negotiate with the nation’s major freight railroads for trackage rights.
Because freight is often prioritized, Amtrak service in areas outside the northeast is often excruciatingly slow. The 165 mile journey between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg takes 5½ hours, compared to less than two hours for the 100 mile trip from Philadelphia to Harrisburg.
The $1.2 billion infrastructure bill President Joe Biden signed in 2021 includes $66 billion for Amtrak, which included three new rail services in Pennsylvania in its 2035 vision plan. If Amtrak follows through on the proposals, Scranton and Allentown would get new rail links to New York and Reading would get rail service to Philadelphia.
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