Will Ownership of Amtrak’s Keystone East Line Transfer to Pennsylvania?

Written by Marybeth Luczak, Executive Editor
Pennsylvania has made “enormous” investments in the Keystone East Line without managerial control, said U.S. Rep. Lloyd Smucker (R-Pa.), whose new legislation would allow the Commonwealth “to provide greater local control, accountability, and expand ridership opportunities.”

Pennsylvania has made “enormous” investments in the Keystone East Line without managerial control, said U.S. Rep. Lloyd Smucker (R-Pa.), whose new legislation would allow the Commonwealth “to provide greater local control, accountability, and expand ridership opportunities.”

U.S. Rep. Lloyd Smucker (R-Pa.) has introduced legislation requiring a transfer of ownership of Amtrak’s Keystone East Line and some of its 12 stations to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Under the Keystone Line for the Commonwealth Act, the line between Harrisburg, Pa., and Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station would be managed by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT).

Run by Amtrak, the Keystone East Line is state supported, as required by the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 (PRIIA). The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) also operates its Paoli-Thorndale commuter rail service along the line.

Rep Lloyd Smucker (R-Pa.)

Smucker, a Republican serving Pennsylvania’s 11th District, said he has been “disappointed” by Amtrak’s “responsiveness and management” of the line, and noted that “renovation and repair projects are consistently delayed and over budget and revenue generated on the line is sent out of the Commonwealth to other states along the Northeast Corridor.”

Smucker added that Pennsylvania has made “enormous” investments in the Keystone Line without managerial control, and the new legislation would allow the Commonwealth to “provide greater local control, accountability, and expand ridership opportunities.”

SEPTA operates Paoli-Thorndale commuter rail service (pictured) along the Keystone East Line.

“SEPTA is grateful for Congressman Smucker’s commitment to improving commuter and intercity passenger rail service in Pennsylvania,” SEPTA General Manager Leslie S. Richards said. “This bill would bring control of the Keystone East Line to the state level—opening up opportunities for SEPTA also to improve service on the Paoli-Thorndale Line, which is SEPTA’s highest ridership Regional Rail line.”

This proposal has also been supported by the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, which on July 8 unanimously adopted House Resolution 918, requesting the U.S. Department of Transportation to relinquish ownership of the line to PennDOT.

In February, Bennett Levin wrote a Railway Age op-ed asking: “How can the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania be freed from Amtrak’s abusive monopoly on intercity passenger rail service?” The retired professional engineer based the piece on his Dec. 17, 2019, testimony before the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. His testimony covered 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 PRIIA.

On Dec. 17, 2019, Bennett Levin (pictured) testified before the Pennsylvania House of Representatives on creating viable rail passenger opportunities for Western Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia-Harrisburg corridor.

Amtrak Responds

Amtrak Public Relations Manager Beth K. Toll provided Railway Age with the following statement:

  • While Pennsylvania funds most of the operating losses on the Keystone Service, Amtrak pays the vast majority of the costs of maintaining and upgrading Harrisburg Line tracks and other infrastructure that are attributable to Keystone Service operations, and has invested almost $100 million in the line over the past five years.
  • Amtrak has partnered with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to transform the Harrisburg Line from a dilapidated rail line with trains pulled by diesel locomotives into a high speed electrified line that is the second-fastest rail line in North America (after the NEC). The Keystone Corridor Improvement Project (KCIP), jointly funded by Amtrak and the Commonwealth, has been cited in the Harvard Business Review as a “model” for “cost-effective performance improvements” in passenger rail service. That project, which restored electrified service to the Harrisburg Line, increased maximum speeds to 110 mph, increased service frequency to near hourly and extended most trains to New York City to provide passengers with a one-seat ride, has produced huge increases in ridership.
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