The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

August 21, 2013

PennDOT, Amtrak reach agreement

Kathy Mellott

— The thousands of people in the region who rely on rail passenger service to travel to the east and west can count on those rides, at least for the next year, a PennDOT spokesman said Wednesday.

While the deal between Penn-DOT and Amtrak is yet to be inked, the details have been worked out and the state is committed to funding the service for at least a year.

This means daily runs of The Pennsylvanian, connecting Philadelphia to Harrisburg to Pittsburgh and numerous stops in between, will continue through the end of September 2014.

Those stops will ensure rail service to small communities such as Latrobe, Tyrone and Huntingdon and large communities including Johnstown, Greensburg and Altoona, Amtrak spokesman Craig Schulz said.

Commitment for longer than one year is largely dependent on increases in revenue for statewide transportation initiatives, said Erin Waters-Trasatt, a PennDOT spokeswoman.

“We’re confident we’ll have an agreement and we’ll move forward in a positive manner,” she said.

In the deal, PennDOT is agreeing to pay $3.8 million to keep The Pennsylvanian on the rails and making the stops, she said. The state will also come up with more money to keep The Keystone running.

The state has been helping with the costs of The Keystone, which travels a heavily used route from Harrisburg to Philadelphia to New York, for some time.

The issue of passenger rail service on The Pennsylvanian and The Keystone came to the forefront after the federal government passed a mandate that by Oct. 1, 2013, routes that operate less than 750 miles must be completely state-funded, officials said.

The Pennsylvanian travels a 249 mile route from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg while The Keystone’s  run is 91 miles from Harrisburg to Philadelphia, Schulz said.

The deal has been a long time in the making, but one official is choosing to wait until everything is in place before offering comment.

U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Hollidaysburg, said through his spokesperson that he would have no comment “until the deal is finalized.”

Shuster is chairman of the powerful Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure.

Passenger rail service is vital to the state and the nation, said Schulz.

“In addition to the historical aspect – there is a lot of railroad history in that area – it provides mobility and connectivity for people,” he said.

From the end of The Pennsylvanian route in Pittsburgh, passengers can catch the Capital Limited to Chicago and westward to California, Schulz said.

Supporting the push for state officials to ante up for the passenger service are the statistics showing train use is on the upswing, he said.

Ridership on Pennsylvania rail passenger lines increased by 2.2 percent from the 207,422 in 2011 to 212,006 in 2012, according to Amtrak figures.

Key to a long-term deal between PennDOT and Amtrak is a state transportation bill that will increase revenue, officials said.