Saturday, August 29, 2009

Low Cost Alternatives

Pennsylvania's submission is in. Politics and Place and Green is Good beat me to the punch, so I won't rehash what they have already capably covered, EXCEPT to say, Keystone Corridor West…really? Don't patronize us. If you have no real plans of making it a corridor, don't call it one. I can call the Turtle Creek Industrial Railroad the "Export Corridor", but that doesn't change what it is. The same can be said for the "Keystone Corridor West"; you can call it a corridor all day and all night but to PENNDOT, it's a freight railroad with 1 passenger train each direction every day.

Enough Ranting…Instead I want to make a pitch for more "standard" service. Despite the problems of the late "Steel City Flyer" I do believe the market is there for greater service. In 2008 the Pennsylvanian's ridership increased 12%, and increased another 1% in the first half of 2009 (I know 1% is hardly stellar, but not bad when you consider that overall ridership on Amtrak has slipped from the huge increases in 2008).

Combine the increases with the fact that there are some holes in the current service and you get the opportunity for more service. Someone cannot take a train from Pittsburgh (which leaves at about 7:20 AM) go to Harrisburg or Philly, and expect to get anything done that day and return on a later train to Pittsburgh. The same goes for anyone traveling to Pittsburgh from Harrisburg or Philadelphia. In fact, that is even worse. If you have business in Pittsburgh, better be ready to make a 3 day trip! If your business takes place on Tuesday, you'll be leaving Monday afternoon in order to arrive on Monday evening. I hope your business takes all day, because your next opportunity to head east will be on Wednesday morning.

The bottom line is, we can do better, and do it for a lot less than an electrified HSR system*. The track is there, the signaling is top notch (used by 60+ freight trains a day). If you think said 60+ trains a day are a problem, consider a quote from an NS exec who when asked about the Pittsburgh Line in a Trains Magazine article from 2005 said that "We've Got Room to Grow". He is right. Most of the right of way from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg at one point had more tracks than what they have now. That means, if need be, another track could be put in place. This would certainly minimize interference between freight and passenger trains.

We, as a state could foot part of the bill and have Amtrak operate it, much the same as the Keystone Corridor, Lincoln Service, and Downeaster, to name a few. That would save on rolling stock costs. If we wanted to get crazy, we could follow the path of Vermont who has been pursuing DMU's for its Vermonter service. Everybody knows where I stand on DMU's. They're FRA approved so they could operate with freight trains. Additionally, they're cheaper to build and maintain than traditional trainsets.

This is by no means hard analysis, but it can be done, again maximizing existing infrastructure in order to save construction/operating costs. Pennsylvania would be doing its own citizens a much better service by committing to lower level but more frequent service instead of wasting a few million here and there every few years to study HSR west of Harrisburg with no real intention of ever building it.

*I haven't changed my position on HSR, and would support it if PENNDOT ever got serious about it west of Harrisburg. However, since they don't seem to be serious at all, we should at least get some form of transportation investment west of Harrisburg.

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