A study currently being conducted by Norfolk Southern Corp. represents “the first important, critical step” toward the expansion of passenger rail service through Johnstown, according to the PennDOT official who oversees rail policy.
The goal of the study is to determine what improvements need to be made to Norfolk Southern’s tracks between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg before a second daily round-trip passenger train could be run over those tracks, said Jennie Granger, PennDOT’s deputy secretary for multimodal transportation, on Monday afternoon at a luncheon at Holiday Inn Johnstown-Downtown hosted by the Cambria Regional Chamber.
Johnstown’s only current passenger rail service is provided by Amtrak’s Pennsylvanian train, which makes one round trip per day between New York City and Pittsburgh. Because the Pennsylvanian heads west from Johnstown to Pittsburgh in the evening and east from Pittsburgh to Johnstown in the morning, passengers can’t travel by train from Johnstown to Pittsburgh and back in one day.
Area legislators, business leaders, members of advocacy groups and other interested parties have spoken often in recent years about the benefits that more passenger rail service could bring to the Johnstown region.
For example, a second daily round-trip passenger train, if scheduled at the right time, could allow Johnstown residents to commute to work in Pittsburgh in the morning and return home at night.
“There’s also the reverse effect,” state Sen. Wayne Langerholc Jr., R-Richland Township, said on Monday, suggesting that increased passenger rail service could also accommodate Pittsburghers who want to travel to Johnstown and points east. “We have a ton of excellent festivals, excellent recreational opportunities, excellent things that could draw people from the western part of the state. They could come here, they could recreate, they could spend their disposable income, which will greatly benefit our local economy.”
The portion of the Pennsylvanian’s route between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh is run over Norfolk Southern’s Pittsburgh Line.
“Amtrak runs one train a day, round-trip, which is not near enough frequency,” Granger said. “The issue at hand is, because Norfolk Southern owns that track, they can say who does not run on it. If they don’t want Amtrak on it, they don’t have to let them run another train a day. That’s all there is to it.”
PennDOT recently asked Amtrak, Granger said, to explore the nuts and bolts of adding another daily passenger train: “What would it take? What would a second round-trip train a day look like? Give us a timetable. Ideally, how would this work with the ‘Keystone’ trains on the eastern part of the state? How would we make it work with Penn Station, going into New York?”
Amtrak came back to Penn-
DOT with a proposed timetable, and PennDOT provided that proposed timetable to Norfolk Southern. Norfolk Southern’s response, as Granger put it on Monday, was, “In order for us to tell you if we’ll allow this or not, and what it would take, you need to pay us to do this study.”
“The study itself is a lot like a traffic study,” Granger said. “It takes into account their freight movements, both historically and what they’re projecting going forward … and then, how does that interact with our proposed two trains a day?”
Granger expects to receive the results of the study in the second half of 2020.
“I anticipate Norfolk Southern will come back to (PennDOT) in 10 months or so,” she said, “and say, ‘We’ve completed our study, and here’s a list of capital improvements that we would need to see implemented before we could allow this to happen.’ … Once we get that information in 2020, we’ll have a better-educated idea of how to proceed with that service.”
Among the capital improvements Granger said she expects Norfolk Southern will require include new and/or improved switches, the devices that direct trains from one track to another; interlockings, the signals that prevent conflicting train movements; and sidings, sections of track that would allow fast trains to pass slower trains.
Norfolk Southern did not respond to a request for comment on Monday, but a company vice president said in August that the railroad is already “stretched to capacity” on its Pittsburgh Line and that any expansion of passenger rail service would have to be done in a way that would not affect the railroad’s current freight customers.
“We aren’t opposed to (passenger rail). It’s just incredibly complicated,” Rudy Husband, Norfolk Southern resident vice president, said on Aug. 28 at a Pennsylvania House Transportation Committee meeting in Altoona.
During that meeting, Husband said that there are 40 to 60 freight trains per day on the Pittsburgh Line and that adding more passenger rail service could require the construction of separate portions of track or of an entire separate track.
In response to a question from Langerholc on Monday, Granger said that, if it proves impractical to add a second round-trip passenger train the whole way from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh, she would be willing to entertain the possibility of adding a second train over only part of that route, potentially including Johnstown.
“Depending on what Norfolk Southern comes back with, I’m willing to consider any and all options, looking forward to increasing some service,” she said. “It seems like there’s a big desire from this area to go west. There’s also a desire that I hear from Pittsburgh to go eastward. Ultimately, my desire is to make it an entire route, but … if I can only do so much, I’m willing to consider that. It’s not always my favorite, but doing things incrementally, at least I can show some progress, and then we keep fighting the good fight.”
As he left the luncheon, Langerholc said he is “very excited and encouraged” by the news of the Norfolk Southern study. He said adding more passenger rail service through Johnstown is something he’s supported since he was elected in 2016. He pointed to his support of Senate Resolution 76 of 2017, which directed the state Legislative Budget and Finance Committee to study the feasibility of adding more passenger trains between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg.
“I’ve met with individuals across the community, across the county, on the impact that (increased passenger rail service) could have,” he said. “I’m encouraged by Deputy Secretary Granger’s attendance here and her encouraging words – that she realizes the potential that rail could have on our economy.”