The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Editorials

April 3, 2013

Faster service at cheaper cost

Amtrak must be part of high-speed rail

— More than $3.8 million in Pennsylvania tax dollars will go this year to help maintain rail passenger service in the Keystone State.

Yet most of the people who pay those dollars will never set foot on Amtrak’s Pennsylvanian, which runs between Pittsburgh and New York, with stops in Johnstown and Altoona.

That’s unfortunate. We believe anyone who gave it a try would like it. It’s a comfortable mode of travel.

With reservation, we applaud Gov. Tom Corbett’s efforts late last month that hammered out an agreement with the rail carrier on a new funding plan that would maintain that service.

A lot of riders certainly welcomed the news, including the dozens of people who rallied last month at Johnstown’s train station to show support for the service.

The good news is that in each of the past three years, Amtrak has set ridership records, luring more than 31 million passengers in 2012. That’s up nearly 10 million people since 2001. In Pennsylvania, more than 212,000 people rode The Pennsylvanian last year, up 2.2 percent from the year before. A record 1.4 million boarded Amtrak’s Keystone Service trains between Harrisburg and Philadelphia. Yet, rail service continues to struggle financially, needing annual infusions.

And that’s the bad news.

Amtrak began operations on May 1, 1971, as a for-profit corporation, but has never been able to show a profit on its own. It has always required government funding to stay on line. 

Critics argue that Amtrak subsidies – from both the federal and state governments – are wasteful. Supporters say public subsidies of mass transportation are good energy and good environmental policies. Just as governments support air travel and highway construction, they say, so should they help keep passenger trains running.

“Its money well-spent, state Rep. Bryan Barbin, D-Johnstown, said during last month’s rally in the city.

“This is the most important thing we can do to keep this community vibrant,” he said. “It is a way to connect to the rest of the state and connect to the nation.”

His points are well taken, but the service has never been able to meet some of its greatest expectations. High-speed rail travel has been touted for decades, but has been slow as molasses in taking hold, mostly because of the huge investment it involves. It’s still much quicker to travel to New York by car, and a layover is required to make a return trip.

America has never shown the drive or the will to invest the kind of money it would take to bring our nation’s railroads up to a par with those in Europe and Japan.

Talk with little real action has been ongoing for decades.

With our highways and skies becoming more clogged with passenger traffic, cheap, reliable, expanded rail service would be a welcome addition. But we need rapid rail service that could prove more convenient than the airlines and certainly both faster and safer than highway travel.

You attract people by giving them what they want and need, not by taking away the little they already have – and that includes services like The Pennsylvanian.

We believe Amtrak is trying harder to accommodate travelers by getting them to their destinations more quickly and more comfortably. But it also has to find ways to do it more cost-effectively, certainly without relying year after year on millions and millions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies.

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