Imagine, 10 years from now, a young worker boards a passenger train in Johnstown, heading to Pittsburgh for a day’s work at Google, Uber, Apple or – just maybe – Amazon HQ2.
Along the way, the individual can catch up on work, read, text with friends, listen to music, nap or simply stare out the window, watching the countryside roll past, instead of dealing with stop-and-go traffic leading into the Squirrel Hill Tunnel.
Being able to commute on a train could provide the opportunity to take a job in a vibrant major city, while still residing in a small, rural Cambria County town with a low cost of living.
It is a vision many elected officials, community leaders, businesses and nonprofits are hoping to make a reality by pushing for increased passenger rail service in western Pennsylvania.
“I think that this region needs to get closer to Pittsburgh because that’s where there will be economic opportunity for our residents,” said Westmont resident Robert Gleason, a major proponent of expanding rail service and former chairman of the Republican Party of Pennsylvania. “Our residents could – especially our younger residents – take positions with these companies and they won’t have to sell their homes.
“They could still live in Johnstown, enjoy all the benefits of our fine health-care facilities, schools, places of worship – it’s a great place to live – and be able to commute back and forth, like people have been doing forever in New York, Philly, Houston, L.A., San Francisco, Atlanta, Miami. This would be great for us.”
Increasing rail service could help Johnstown along with other western Pennsylvania municipalities with passenger train stops – including Altoona, Greensburg, and Latrobe – become bedroom communities for Pittsburgh, which has attracted internationally known technology companies in recent years and is one of 20 finalists to become home to Amazon’s second headquarters.
“I envision people migrating to Johnstown to live here – and they’ll commute back and forth to their jobs – if we could develop a commuter system that is reliable, that is affordable, and that is convenient,” Gleason said.
Twice daily, a passenger train rolls through Johnstown.
At 9:03 a.m., the Pennsylvanian stops in the city on its eastbound journey to Philadelphia and New York City.
Then at 6:10 p.m., the same Amtrak comes back through town, westbound toward Pittsburgh.
That schedule is not conducive for passengers who want to go into Pittsburgh for work or a day trip.
So Western Pennsylvanians for Passenger Rail has been advocating for years to try to get two more daily roundtrips added from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh.
Mark Spada, the organization’s president, believes upping the number of trains running every day would lead to a natural increase in ridership in the western part of the commonwealth.
“Folks are riding trains,” Spada said. “It’s a welcome alternate mode of transportation. We do think there’s an unmet opportunity in western Pennsylvania to get in on the increased demand for rail ridership.”
A 2014 report Western Pennsylvanians for Passenger Railand Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership – titled “On Track to Accessibility, Increasing Service of the Pennsylvanian: Benefits and Costs” – estimated that expanding western Pennsylvania service, from one daily roundtrip to three, would almost double ridership and revenue for the Pennsylvanian, taking the totals to more than 400,000 passengers and $21 million annually, based on 2013 numbers.
Opened in 1916, Johnstown’s train station, located at 47 Walnut Street, has undergone a major renovation in recent years with improvements made to the roof, chimneys, walls and other elements of the building that was designed by famed architect Kenneth MacKenzie Murchison.
The improvements have been done as part of a larger overall vision to turn the station – owned by the Johnstown Area Heritage Association – into a multi-modal transportation hub, tourism center and showcase destination along the Pittsburgh-to-Harrisburg route. JAHA would like to also see the station become home to a tourist information center and attractions such as a culinary school, restaurant and bike rental facility.
“This could really do a lot, helping with revitalization,” JAHA President Richard Burkert said.
More than 20,000 passengers use the station every year.
Burkert thinks the number could grow significantly if the number of daily trains is increased, thus linking the county more to the surrounding areas.
“I think as the region becomes economically more integrated – and you have the potential to go to Pittsburgh for work, not just cultural and sporting events – that’s the kind of thing that makes Johnstown really attractive on a regional basis,” Burkert said.
Time for a study?
Numerous elected officials have been promoting the potential benefits of expanded rail service in western Pennsylvania. They include U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Everett, from the 9th district and chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee; state Rep. Bryan Barbin, D-Johnstown; state Sen. Wayne Langerholc, R-Richland; Cambria County President Commissioner Thomas Chernisky; and Johnstown Mayor Frank Janakovic.
“There’s a lot of support for this. … The time is now to get these moving pieces together,” Langerholc said. “There are a lot of different advocates for this across the region. It’s time to put it all together, and move forward, and get a plan in here that establishes results.”
A top goal of those involved is to acquire funding from the commonwealth to conduct a comprehensive feasibility study.
That could then lead to a pilot program.
“This is another one where it’s collaborative,” Barbin said. “The state has money set aside for transportation studies. The next step in this process of trying to get it is probably with federal funding, but it requires a study to be done before you can apply for the federal funding.”
Barbin said achieving short- and long-term goals will require “patience.”
“You need to have the study, because that allows everybody who is a stakeholder to have a say in the process, whether you have a route and at what times do you have a route,” Barbin said. “And then you’ve got to look at the additional things that it might require, like some additional switching of track in the areas where you’re pulling in with the passenger train. You may need limited track improvements.
“But we’ve done those kind of things in the east from Harrisburg to Philly, and you can do the same thing here. But you’ve got to get everybody sitting down and working through the study together.”
Norfolk Southern Corp., which owns the tracks, would need to permit a right-of-way for any extra passenger trains to run.
No specific proposal regarding passenger rail service in the Johnstown region has yet been presented to the company, according to information provided by a Norfolk Southern spokesman.
Norfolk Southern would base its consideration upon several factors: overall safety, existence of sufficient infrastructure for both passenger and freight trains to operate without delays, fair value for the company’s assets, full liability protection, and the ability of passenger rail to operate without a subsidy from Norfolk Southern.
“Any serious proposal would require an operational feasibility study so that Norfolk Southern could fully understand the potential impacts,” according to a statement from the company. “A study would be coordinated by Norfolk Southern and paid for by the sponsor of the passenger rail proposal. These studies are detailed and specific and can take a year or more to complete. A completed operational feasibility study is a prerequisite to progress a project.”
On Aug. 23, 2016, Rudy Husband, Norfolk Southern resident vice president of government relations in Pennsylvania, testified before Pennsylvania’s House Transportation Committee about the possibility of increased service.
Husband described Norfolk Southern’s Pittsburgh Line in western Pennsylvania as an important segment that “sits literally in the middle of our Premier Corridor, which connects Chicago and the New York metropolitan area.”
“From both a customer service and revenue standpoint, there is not a more important rail line within Norfolk Southern’s 22-state network,” Husband told the committee that met inside Pittsburgh’s David L. Lawrence Convention Center.
“And, because of that, we cannot look at this particular segment in a vacuum. The Pittsburgh-to-Harrisburg segment should be viewed as a bridge that connects shippers to the East Coast, the Midwest to the western and Canadian freight railroads and to hundreds of short lines. As such, any additional trains – whether passenger or freight – may have serious ramifications on other parts of our network. That’s why a comprehensive operational feasibility study is absolutely critical.”
Amtrak owns the tracks in the eastern part of the state, where 14 trains run – roundtrip – per weekday between Harrisburg and Philadelphia, an area with a larger population base than the Pittsburgh region.
Tracking ‘cost issues’
Final approval of any plan would need to come from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.
Rich Kirkpatrick, PennDOT communications director, said the organization welcomes “the review of the cost issues of additional cross-state train service by the Senate and the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee,” but acknowledged there are “challenges tied to starting a second cross-state train.”
“Amtrak has estimated it would cost Pennsylvania an additional $3.75 million to $6 million a year to operate a second train,” Kirkpatrick said. “In addition, Pennsylvania would have to pay a one-time crew training charge of about $1 million. We currently pay Amtrak about $2 million a year for Harrisburg to Pittsburgh service.
“In addition, Norfolk Southern has indicted there would be significant capital costs of accommodating a second passenger train on its corridor. A 2005 study estimated a capital cost of at least $110 million and that would be higher in today’s dollars.”