Why the Pittsburgh-Harrisburg Amtrak Train Sucks and How to Fix It

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Here are the main reasons that I think the Pittsburgh-Harrisburg Amtrak requires so much in federal and state subsidies:

PennDOT currently spends about $9 million to subsidize the much faster and healthier Amtrak service connecting Harrisburg and Philadelphia, which has 14 daily trips operating at speeds up to 110 mph on electrified track that has received more than $150 million in upgrades.

The state does not subsidize Pittsburgh-Harrisburg service, which has one daily trip in each direction and slower-moving diesel locomotives that go no faster than 70 mph and average 45 mph.

One issue is that when you only run one train a day, people are going to have a hard time integrating that into their daily lives as a form of transportation. They need to increase the frequency of train trips if they want more riders. What if you miss the train? Traveling by car is going to be much more reliable.

It’s also a lot faster. The train takes 5.5 hours and driving takes 3.5 hours. In order to boost rail’s mode share, the train has to be faster than driving, and it has to be the same or lower cost than driving.

There’s no physical reason that a train couldn’t get between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg in under 3 hours. You could replace the current train cars with lighter ones (pending FRA rule changes in Washington) so that trains go faster between stations, you could cut service to some of the stations in less populated areas.

There are also probably more down-in-the-weeds obstacles to higher speeds related to electronic infrastructure, rights-of-way, organizational dysfunction, union work rules, etc.

Here is an old Stephen Smith post on how David Gunn was able to drastically improve the Philly-Harrisburg line to give you an idea of what some of the obstacles to higher speeds are.

As for the subsidies issue, I think it would greatly improve the transportation funding debate if everybody admitted that all forms of transportation infrastructure require subsidies – roads, highways and transit. The issue isn’t subsidies vs. no subsidies, it’s *how much* money is required, and could it be lower?

Once you accept that, I think you can take a more rational view of some of these choices. For instance, people want to do something about congestion in Pittsburgh. One “solution” that’s always popular with lawmakers is highway-widening. It doesn’t work because of induced demand, but DOTs spend hundreds of millions of dollars on these projects anyway.

An alternative approach would be to increase trip frequency on the Harrisburg-Pittsburgh line, and try to turn a bunch of those solo-commuters into train riders. If the federal government shifts the responsibility for subsidizing the Harrisburg-Pittsburgh line onto PennDOT, that’ll cost only $5.7 million a year. Rather than spend $100M+ on highway widening, you could spend a quarter of that subsidizing Amtrak in western PA and boost trip frequency by quite a bit, lower fares, etc.

It also must be said that the cost of the subsidies could be offset by selling Amtrak parking lots and requiring that areas around Amtrak stations by zoned for transit-oriented development, not park-n-rides. Providing Amtrak service to some of these smaller towns is only really worth it if they’re going to use the expensive land around stations for higher-density development, mixed-use housing, retail and offices. If the state takes over financing for this route, they should partially fund it through land taxes on the land around the stations, and wield the stick of potential station cuts to extract concessions on local zoning changes. Developing the land around stations will get you more passengers, reduce the required level of subsidies, and increase property tax receipts in the municipalities served by Amtrak.

(Thanks: Jon Schmitz)

This entry was posted in Miscellany.

3 Responses to Why the Pittsburgh-Harrisburg Amtrak Train Sucks and How to Fix It

  1. Paul Druce says:

    I’m not entirely certain that you could get under three hours for Pittsburgh-Harrisburg without spending a good deal of money; it would require an average speed above 80 miles per hour and while FEC is doing that, they’ve got a flat route that’ll be spending most of its time at 110-125mph in order to do it. Given the freight traffic on the line, you would likely need to build a dedicated high speed rail line in order to get it down below 3 hours.

    However, Talgos and eliminating any low hanging slow zones might be able to get it down to 3.5 hours (Talgo is claimed to have calculated it at 4’10 without track improvements and retaining 34 minute padding). A second train frequency, preferably with an earlier NYC departure, is certainly called for however; occupancy is about 50% and there are definitely riders to be gained with an additional frequency.

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