Looming Funding Cuts Threaten Amtrak’s Pennsylvanian

Eastbound Amtrak Pennsylvanian pauses for a station stop at Altoona. Scenes like this may come to an end on the Pittsburgh Line in October if funding is not appropriated.

Eastbound Amtrak Pennsylvanian pauses for a station stop at Altoona. Scenes like this may come to an end on the Pittsburgh Line in October if funding is not appropriated. Photo courtesy of Dustin Faust (c) 2012

The last regularly scheduled passenger train that travels along the ex-PRR mainline between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh may become history if a deal is not worked out between the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and Amtrak.

Under the Federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008, passenger rail routes less than 750 miles in length must follow a uniform funding system. As a result, PennDOT will have to cover the full $5.7 million annual subsidy for the Pennsylvanian. Until this time, PennDOT has not had to contribute anything for the service.

According to PennDOT, they have discussed with Amtrak plans for the October 1st deadline, everything from extending the route beyond the 750 mile minimum to eliminating the route entirely.

This may come as a hard subsidy to justify, particularly since the cash-strapped state will also have to contribute more for its Keystone service, which includes Amtrak operations east of Harrisburg. PennDOT already contributes a 51% subsidy to Amtrak for this service, currently totaling approximately $9 million per year.

Keystone Service is much more frequent, with 14 trains operating each day, with much faster service. Ridership on this service has doubled to more than 1.3 million passengers per year, and a $145 million upgrade to the line was completed in 2006. New locomotives will be placed in service next year and speeds are expected to be increased to 125mph in some sections.

All of this leaves a bleak outlook for the Pennsylvanian, with just one train operating a day over the Alleghenies each way.

In 1911, a reported 60 passenger trains per day called at the station in Altoona, the heart of the old Pennsylvania Railroad. The most famous train of which was the Broadway Limited, the flagship passenger train of the railroad operating between New York and Chicago. The Broadway continued under the stewardship of Amtrak, until budget cuts and politics caused its last run on September 9, 1995. It was replaced the next day with an all-coach train to Pittsburgh named the Three Rivers. In 1996, the train was once again extended to Chicago to facilitate movement of Amtrak’s growing mail and express business. Due to its length the train earned the nickname “The Amtrak Freight,” as its length grew to well over 30 cars, with only one or two of them actually being passenger coaches. Once mail and express business was eliminated, so too was the Three Rivers, making its last run on March 7, 2005. This left the Pennsylvanian as the last passenger train on the route. This too is now also in jeopardy.

 

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