Passenger rail service in America – a railroad system that even Bulgaria would be ashamed of. Those were the words of author James Kuntsler speaking about his research and writings on urban sprawl and related transportation challenges in the United States several years ago. By most standards, rail transportation is woefully underfunded when compared to other modes of transportation in the United States. The emasculation of Amtrak had already helped reduce the number of trains between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg to a single trip each way per day. (Sixty passenger trains once passed through Altoona each day.) While the world is a vastly different place then, a recent resurgence has caused a re-examination of passenger rail's place in the American transportation system.
Passenger rail transportation remains the most efficient mechanized way to move people, about 45% more efficient than the private automobile. The dominant mode of transportation a century ago, rail had dipped to less than half a per cent of all passenger miles traveled in America. While the Northeast Corridor still manages to secure notable funding to maintain and enhance the busy part of the system that runs from Washington, through Philadelphia and on to New York. But Congress has persistently stuck the states with the tab for routes that were already in a tough spot and operating at the mercy of the freight lines that own the track on which they travel.
A number of places throughout the country have undertaken studies to explore rail's potential to fill important niches in our national transportation system. One such study, the Keystone West High Speed Rail study, is being done here in Pennsylvania to explore various options to improve service in these parts. The study, however, seemed to look for a complicated answer to a simple question. Rather than looking at the whole picture, the study focused more on the expensive, high-tech options to solve a problem that could be addressed by a change in policy and practices.
Many believe that the simple investment in more trains would do much more than spending billions on straightening out a dozen curves. Henry Posner III of Pittsburgh's Railroad Development Corporation, owner of several domestic and foreign freight railroads, believes that people are much less concerned about time because they can work or relax on the train. "Why not focus on what passengers really want, which is frequency, not speed?" Posner asked.
The most annoying delays are not caused by slow sections of tracks, but because Amtrak must share freight line right-of-ways. Common in Pennsylvania and most of the upper Midwest, the delays happen because Amtrak doesn't own its own track. After tolerating a three and half hour delay on the Lakeshore Limited last fall, a passenger interviewed by the Cleveland Plain Dealer called the Amtrak timetable more of a "wish list" than a schedule.
Despite limited options and frequent delays, people still ride the trains. Over 58,000 passengers get on or off the train in Johnstown, Altoona, Tyrone or Huntingdon in an average year. Ridership is up six per cent since 2010, despite the fact that the trains are old, the tracks are designed for freight trains and it takes less time to drive. The single daily train means that arrivals and departures are inconvenient for business travelers, forcing people to make overnight stays if they use the train.
Based on the national average of 1.5 passengers per car, the train is keeping 32,000 cars off the road each year, even here in the more lightly traveled Central Pennsylvania region between Huntingdon and Johnstown. Besides being a much more environmentally sound way to travel, it is an important option for many people that have limited access to an automobile. In addition to older and lower income people, that group also includes many college-aged individuals. As Penn State Altoona continues its amazing growth as Penn State's most requested campus after University Park, that student access is important.
Limited mass transit options inordinately penalize those that can least afford it. Federal and state spending on railroads remains a tiny fraction of what we spend on highways and airports. Passenger rail in America is running much less frequently, struggling to keep thirty year old trains running, using lines owned by freight lines that don't want them on their tracks. It sure seems like a funny way to run a railroad.