Two Tickets to Pittsburgh—And Back

Written by Bennett Levin, P.E.
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SEPTA Siemens ACS-64s, virtually identical to Amtrak’s. Photo: SEPTA/GJP Photography

How can the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania be freed from Amtrak’s abusive monopoly on intercity passenger rail service? This editorial is based on my Dec. 17, 2019 testimony before the Pennsylvania House of Representatives Transportation Committee, during which I spoke about creating viable rail passenger opportunities for Western Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia-Harrisburg corridor that could serve as a template for other states currently paying for Amtrak service under the bizarre federal legislation called PRIIA.

Improving rail passenger service in Western Pennsylvania has been the subject of multiple studies since 2005. Advocacy groups in the Pittsburgh region have attempted to get additional frequencies of passenger train service in the corridor stretching from Pittsburgh to Latrobe and Greensburg, continuing on to Johnstown and Altoona. Their efforts have not yielded any tangible results.

At an August 2019 Pennsylvania House of Representatives Transportation Committee hearing, it became apparent that all the parties were talking past each other, and that with each passing study and each passing hearing, the level of frustration has only intensified. Yet, to me it was apparent that there were options that were either not being considered or being ignored, deliberately or inadvertently.

Because of my involvement with the Transportation Committee since 2015, attempting to educate it about railroad-related issues in Pennsylvania, I started on “a clean sheet of paper” to ferret out a realistic set of solutions. Surprisingly, the exercise took me from Pittsburgh back to Philadelphia to stake out an initial proposal to provide an incremental solution for the people in the western part of the state.

The solutions for improving rail passenger opportunities for the Pittsburgh region are dependent upon examining the Commonwealth’s financial obligations and commitments to Amtrak for service on the Harrisburg Line, which runs between Philadelphia and Harrisburg.

Wikipedia photo

Here are the facts:

  • The Commonwealth pays Amtrak $16.3 million annually for service consisting of 26 weekday Keystone trains (13 in each direction) between Philadelphia and Harrisburg, and two daily Pennsylvanian trains (one in each direction) between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. These are Amtrak trains with Amtrak equipment and crews.
  • SEPTA pays Amtrak $74 million annually for operating rights, $41 million of which is attributable to operations on the Harrisburg Line as far west as Thorndale in Chester County—81 weekday trains carrying 25,000 riders. These trains are staffed with SEPTA crews. Therefore, the Commonwealth and SEPTA (which the Commonwealth underwrites) pay Amtrak $57.3 million a year for service on the Harrisburg Line, or $1.1 million per week.
  • The Commonwealth has contributed $216 million in capital for infrastructure on the Harrisburg Line. SEPTA has paid Amtrak $32 million over the past three years in capital contributions, of which more than $20 million is attributable to the Harrisburg Line. Therefore, the Commonwealth and SEPTA have contributed close to $240 million for infrastructure on the Harrisburg Line.
  • The United States Department of Transportation owns the Harrisburg Line—not Amtrak. The Harrisburg Line is one of two branches off the Northeast Corridor, most of which, contrary to popular belief, USDOT also owns, except for segments owned by  the States of New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts or their transit agencies.
  • Every passenger train operating on the Harrisburg Line is paid for in one way or another by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. There is no reason why the Harrisburg Line should not be ceded to the Commonwealth, especially in view of the magnitude of capital that the Commonwealth has contributed toward infrastructure. The USDOT paid very little for the Harrisburg Line, which was included in its purchase of most of the Northeast Corridor under the Railroad Revitalization and Regulatory Reform (4R) Act of 1976. Thus, Amtrak operates and maintains the NEC, but technically does not “own” it.
  • Significant federal grant money is available from the Federal Railroad Administration and the USDOT to maintain and upgrade the Harrisburg Line and acquire additional rolling stock for improved, expanded service. Available grant sources include the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvement (CRISI) Program; Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development (BUILD); Infrastructure for Rebuilding America (INFRA); and FRA State of Good Repair programs.
  • SEPTA is one of the best-managed regional/commuter rail operators in the nation. There is no reason why its franchise cannot be modified to allow it to operate west of Thorndale to Harrisburg.

Therefore, the initial step in crafting a solution in the Pittsburgh region is to divorce Amtrak by having the USDOT cede the Harrisburg Line to the Commonwealth and let SEPTA provide the existing Keystone service. Under such a plan, Pennsylvania cuts out the “middleman”—Amtrak—and the Commonwealth’s taxpayers get far better value for every dollar they spend on passenger rail service. Pennsylvania taxpayers and passenger rail riders win. As for the existing Keystone service between Philadelphia and New York, Amtrak would continue to operate it as NEC Northeast Regional trains.

Amtrak Pennsylvanian at Bryn Mawr, Pa. Wikipedia photo

Focusing on Pittsburgh once Amtrak is no longer operating Keystone service on the Harrisburg Line, the following sets forth a simple solution to create a new commuter rail service between Pittsburgh and Johnstown.

  • The current Pennsylvanian, for which the Commonwealth pays under PRIIA, needs to be operated by SEPTA or a third-party contractor (Herzog Transit Services, Keolis, etc.). Its schedule needs to be divorced from being solely a connection with Amtrak’s Capitol Limited at Pittsburgh, where less than 10% of Pennsylvanian passengers connect with it, to one that revives Amtrak’s former Pittsburgh-Altoona Fort Pitt train, with one important modification: Instead of terminating at Altoona and then returning to Pittsburgh, it should initially operate only as far east as Johnstown, where it would be positioned to return to Pittsburgh as a morning commuter train—a distance of less than 70 miles. Once a commuter service is established and takes root, the potential for further enhancements and extensions can be explored, and hopefully implemented.
Amtrak President and CEO Richard Anderson.

I also need to point out the failings of Amtrak’s current senior executive management and Board of Directors, neither of which is focused on providing the quality of rail passenger service mandated by Congress. Amtrak has adopted a murky agenda, with little or no oversight from Congress. Its financial accounting is nothing more than smoke and mirrors, as it does not conform to GAAP (Generally Accepted Accounting Principles).

The current composition of Amtrak’s Board of Directors does not include a single person with actual railroad experience, and as such contradicts the requirements imposed by Congress to be appointed. These requirements have been ignored by a succession of U.S. Presidents, as well as by the U.S. Senate, which must confirm the appointments. Even more telling is the fact that not one member of Amtrak’s current senior executive management team has any bona fide railroad experience.

Amtrak is running on autopilot, and states such as Pennsylvania are paying the bills and getting shortchanged in the process. Amtrak’s current management has also defied a Congressional mandate with regard to excursion service, which has caused significant harm to rural parts of the state that were the beneficiaries of this unique service.

The State Legislature needs to inform the Commonwealth’s U.S. Congressional delegation of the financial charade currently being conducted by Amtrak under the guise of PRIIA, and the smoke-and-mirrors accounting methodology currently in place that is used to extract hundreds of millions of dollars from states and local authorities paying for passenger rail transportation. Pennsylvania, though not alone as a victim, is in a unique position to extricate itself from this quagmire, provided the Commonwealth can “light a fire” and motivate those in Washington D.C. who represent its citizens, to change things.

Norfolk Southern, which pays for operating rights on the Harrisburg Line, and owns, maintains and pays taxes on the heavily utilized Harrisburg-Pittsburgh main line, needs to be a part of the solution.

This solution for Pennsylvania is similar to what was done in California with the Altamont Corridor Express service, which is managed by the San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission, with operations contracted to Herzog Transit Services.

A graduate of Penn State’s College of Liberal Arts (A&L 1961) and College of Engineering (IE 1965), Bennett Levin is a retired Professional Engineer, having been at one time registered in more than 30 states. In 1967 he formed his own engineering firm and had a nationwide practice providing what was then traditional Mechanical and Electrical Engineering Services to Architects, Corporate Clients and Developers. Along the way he was awarded several patents. In 1992, Levin became the City of Philadelphia’s Commissioner of Licenses and Inspections after having served as a member of the City’s Board of Building Standards for 20 years. He has testified on multiple occasions before committees of the United States House of Representatives and the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. Levin has served as a member of the Federal Railroad Administration Railroad Safety Advisory Committee (RSAC) and its Passenger Service Safety Standards Committee. He was President to the American Association of Private Railroad Car owners in the early 1990s, and also was President of the Pennsylvania Railroad Technical and Historical Society. He currently serves on the Board of the Altoona Railroaders Memorial Museum, and the Advisory Board of the Friends of the Railroad Museum of the State of Pennsylvania. Levin’s Juniata Terminal Company, located in Philadelphia, is in the business of leasing locomotives and restoring railroad equipment from a bygone era. Juniata has organized and operated, pro-bono, special trains taking wounded servicemen and women from Walter Reed and Bethesda Military Hospitals to Philadelphia’s Army-Navy football game, as well as trains that benefited charities such as Chicagoland Ronald McDonald Houses, and Capital Region and Philadelphia Area Toys for Tots operations, among others. Levin has as a served as a Trustee of the Army War College Foundation in Carlisle, Pa.

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