Amtrak chief promotes 2nd Pittsburgh-Harrisburg service

PITTSBURGH — Amtrak remains committed to adding a second daily train between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg, with stops in Greensburg, Latrobe and Johnstown, the president of the passenger rail service said.

Making that expanded service a reality, however, depends on negotiations with Norfolk Southern and securing state and federal money, according to our news partners at Trib Live.

Stephen Gardner, president of Amtrak, did not offer an estimated timetable for adding to the existing Pennsylvanian train that leaves Pittsburgh for Harrisburg at 7 a.m. and returns about 8 p.m.

“We’re working with (Norfolk Southern) on what is necessary for the service,” Gardner said Friday during a briefing with Gov. Tom Wolf and representatives from the Scranton area who are seeking new rail service to New York City from Scranton, Reading and Allentown. Norfolk Southern owns the track.

Gardner acknowledged that the Pennsylvanian service would do better with another round trip between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg.

“The lack of a second round trip makes it less competitive,” Gardner said. Adding the extra train would increase ridership on the Pennsylvanian, which was almost 193,000 in 2019, the last full year of service, according to Amtrak.

In adding an extra train between the Steel City and the state capital, Amtrak is proposing to run one of those round-trip trains to Cleveland.

Gardner had offered a three-year timetable for starting the rail service between the eastern Pennsylvania cities and New York, but said that adding a second daily train between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg should be less challenging.

Wolf added his support for another train on the Pennsylvanian route, though he did not offer any path to providing state subsidies that support one round-trip train service between Western Pennsylvania and Harrisburg. Wolf said he sees this plan to add more passenger rail service “as an opportunity to build a transportation system for the 21st century.”

Adding more passenger service likely would cost the state more than the $16 million a year it now pays to subsidize the passenger service.

PennDOT had been receiving $450 million annually from the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission to fund public transportation such as buses and passenger trains, but the commission made its last $450 million payment in July. Next year, that annual support plunges to $50 million.

In order to fund more rail service, U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Scranton, said it is critical that Congress pass the $3.5 trillion Build Back Better bill that provides money for infrastructure. That bill, however, faces stiff opposition in the U.S. Senate and it has lost the support of a key vote from Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.

Gardner’s discussion of adding rail service in Western Pennsylvania left Mark Spada, president of the nonprofit Western Pennsylvanians for Passenger Rail, optimistic.

“Amtrak is looking to do this,” Spada said.

By adding another train to serve the region, Amtrak would simply be returning to service it offered 15 years ago with the Three Rivers train, Spada said.

Gardner did not answer a question on how much another daily train from Western Pennsylvania to Harrisburg would cost.

PennDOT has provided funding for Norfolk Southern to conduct a study on the investments necessary to add an additional passenger train along the heavily traveled mainline between Pittsburgh and the capital.

Officials with PennDOT and Norfolk Southern could not be reached for comment.