Peculiar Pittsburgh

Will there ever be high-speed rail service between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia?

A hyperloop between the cities may be just as likely.

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If you’ve ever taken a train from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia, or vice versa, there are plenty of adjectives you might use to describe the experience. High-speed probably isn’t one of them.

It takes an average of seven hours and five minutes, per Amtrak, to take a passenger train between Pennsylvania’s largest city and its second largest.

By car, the trip is five-and-half hours. By bike, it would take roughly 33 hours to complete, meaning it’s *only* five times faster to make the trek by train than by Schwinn.

Could the train trip be faster? Sure.

Will it ever happen? That’s another story.

But it’s been talked about plenty and for a long, long time.

So when a reader submitted this question as part of our reader-driven Peculiar Pittsburgh series, I grabbed my laptop, threw a travel pillow around my neck and dug in.

“Are there still plans for a high-speed train from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh?”

Here’s what I found.

First, why does the trip take so long?

A few reasons. There are 12 stops between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia on Amtrak’s Pennsylvanian route, which doesn’t require a connection in Harrisburg. Some of those stops are in the central part of the state, meaning the path between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia isn’t a straight shot. That adds distance and time.

Beth K. Toll, a public relations manager with Amtrak, also pointed to “track infrastructure conditions, geography and weather related issues” as factors contributing to the length of the trip.

But the most obvious factor may be the traffic. Yes, train traffic.

The tracks west of Harrisburg are owned by Norfolk Southern, explained Rich Kirkpatrick, communications director with PennDOT, so it’s a busy freight route. The tracks east of Harrisburg are owned by Amtrak.

And this isn’t unusual. CNN reports most of the passenger trains in the United States operate on tracks shared with freight lines.

Erin Waters-Trasatt, a spokeswoman for PennDOT, told WHYY that while the hilly and curvy terrain between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh means trains have to travel more slowly, there also “aren’t many opportunities to pass the slower freight trains that are on that route.”

Waters-Trasatt added, “And the infrastructure is older [than between Philadelphia and Harrisburg], so we would need to be able to upgrade the infrastructure itself to go faster.”

About that upgrade…

Well…

A PennDOT study in 2015 put the cost of a high-speed passenger rail connection between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh — the much slower leg of the Pittsburgh to Philadelphia journey — at anywhere from $1.5 billion to $38 billion.

That same study said it would cost nearly $2 billion to trim a whopping 10 minutes off the trip in each direction. PennDOT said it would cost $10 billion to trim an hour off. In both scenarios, the topography is cited as the biggest obstacle and driver of costs.

Needless to say, those figures caused heartburn for fiscal conservatives, some of whom argued that given ridership rates, the return on investment would be impossible to justify.

Amtrak recorded 6,524,475 “boardings and alightings” in 2017 across Pennsylvania; 145,362 of those were in Pittsburgh, though it’s unclear how many had Philadelphia as a destination.

Proponents used a chicken-and-the-egg argument, wherein ridership rates would grow once service was improved.

But four years later and the study’s proposals remain just that.

How much faster could it be?

High-speed service between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg could cut travel time by an hour to 41⁄2 hours, the PennDOT study found.

For comparison, Keystone East service, which runs between Harrisburg and Philadelphia on the section of track owned by Amtrak, has a top speed of 110 mph, which the Federal Railroad Administration has designated as high-speed.

The low-speed portion of the trip remains west of Harrisburg, for all the reasons listed above.

What would it take to speed up cross-state rail service in Pennsylvania?

Tons of money, as we’ve outlined. Also, a different planet.

Beyond the cost of upgrades and the freight train traffic, the topography west of Harrisburg makes speeding up the service more difficult and expensive.

The proposals for faster rail service between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg contained in that 2015 PennDOT study included a $1.5 billion plan for modifying curves along the route, a $13 billion alternative that would have included the addition of a continuous third track, and a $38 billion option that would have put trains on a new electrified, two-track line and bypassed all existing stops between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh.

According to PennDOT, only the latter option would have made it a “true high-speed corridor.”

Who wants high-speed rail anyway?

When PennDOT’s study was released in 2015, the agency sought comment from the public on whether speeding up the trains would be worth the investment.

Asked for the results last week, a PennDOT spokesperson said the department was unable to provide those figures.

That said, there are certainly proponents of high-speed rail service in Pennsylvania, and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf is one of them.

“Increased opportunities for reliable modes of transportation would help by increasing opportunities for employment, expanding travel options for students looking for educational opportunities, and increasing options to explore Pennsylvania’s tourism destinations, all of which will garner increased economic impacts for every industry, community, and Pennsylvania resident,” Wolf spokesman J.J. Abbott said in an email to The Incline.

Abbott added, “While financial challenges remain, many areas of the commonwealth would benefit from building a more robust commuter rail service, including improving connectivity between Western Pennsylvania and communities to its East. This would be beneficial for the long-term economic competitiveness of the commonwealth. Bipartisan consensus on how to pay for such robust service is critical to achieving those goals.”

On this subject, and many others, that bipartisan consensus remains elusive. In the meantime, legislators are keeping their transit options open — very open.

In September, the Pennsylvania House Transportation Committee passed a non-binding House Resolution that calls for a feasibility study of a cross-state Hyperloop between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with a stop in Harrisburg and a northeast connection to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

Asked if Gov. Wolf supports the hyperloop proposal, Abbott said, “the governor is open to having discussions on all transit proposals.” A hyperloop trip between Pennsylvania’s two largest cities could take as little as 30 minutes to complete.

As PennLive reported, critics of the idea call it “a waste of time and money in a state where getting reliable train service between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh can be a challenge.”

As for high-speed train service across the commonwealth, it appears to be an equally far-fetched proposition at the moment.

So, in conclusion, the status of plans for high-speed rail service across Pennsylvania is largely unchanged, both given the complex nature of the infrastructure and topography west of Harrisburg, the proposed fixes and what they would cost, and a lack of consensus in Harrisburg around this subject.

Maybe consider dusting off that old bicycle.

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