Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Quick Note about the Daily Pennsylvanian

So PennDOT and Amtrak are engaged in a chicken game for the question: Whose responsibility is it to fund the Daily Pennsylvanian? Neither side is stepping up; each is looking for the other to take on the responsibility of funding it. In all this, naturally, the train--and the service it provides--loses; the worst-case scenario is the loss of a daily train between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

Think about that for a second. No train around Horseshoe Curve. No service to Altoona or Lewistown, Johnstown or Tyrone, Greensburg or Latrobe. Several of these towns--principally east of Horseshoe Curve--have growing ridership. Yet ridership in Pittsburgh is flat, even declining.

Why is this? It's a matter of convenience. The train leaves Philly around noon and reaches Pittsburgh in the evening; it leaves Pittsburgh early in the morning and reaches Philly in the early afternoon. It takes 5.5 hours to traverse the Appalachians, from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh. The Turnpike takes the same time to get you all the way there.

So--inconvenient arrivals and departures from Pittsburgh, coupled with a convenient alternative; convenient arrivals and departures from Altoona, Tyrone, and Huntingdon, with a relatively inconvenient alternative. That explains the odd ridership pattern we see on the train.

Now, the next element is something lots of people tend to forget: the Turnpike ain't free. In fact, although it's a five-hour trip from Philly to Pittsburgh, it's also $26.50, usually plus overpriced gas at Sideling Hill. Try it for yourself. It's not like the Turnpike has a lock on the market purely because we're subsidizing the road, the way it is for, say, the Buffalo-Pittsburgh market. In fact, the Amtrak fare, $54.00, is price-competitive with the Turnpike. (Think about it: a $30 Turnpike toll plus $30 for gas at Sideling Hill is about the same as a one-way Amtrak fare.) It's not time-competitive, but it doesn't really need to be to begin building ridership; it can appeal to time-rich demographics, like students and weekenders, and start worrying about time-sensitive travelers later. In fact, this is the very way its ridership is growing where the service is convenient.

What it needs to be is as convenient out of Pittsburgh as it is out of Philadelphia and central Applachia. In other words, what it needs is another daily service that leaves and arrives in Pittsburgh around noon, to complement the section that leaves and arrives in Philadelphia around noon. This would better tap the Pittsburgh element of the market, and build a ridership base to make improvements like, say, hourly service to Johnstown or line improvements to 110 mph running speed.

There's a market there. The will to tap it is what's lacking.


  1. It's the state's responsibility to cover the operating subsidy for the line. The feds passed PRIIA in 2008 which passed on all operating costs to the states for "state-supported" routes. That set of routes includes everything except the NE Corridor and the long-hauls (Empire Builder and company).

  2. In theory. This, however, is the reality.

    The main questions so far have been: Who will cough up? If PennDOT doesn't, is there a way Amtrak can save this line? (It has very high ridership for a daily line.) Can it be made into a LD line? Yaddi yadda yadda...

    But this kind of brinksmanship misses the opportunity Pittsburgh offers, IMO. If departures there weren't so goddamn early or late, more people would ride the train.

  3. PA might be able to back Amtrak into keeping a portion of the costs if it can be proven that the line supports some long-haul routes, but the bulk of the costs are still going to fall to the state. It's legislatively required, and Amtrak likes it that way.

    I agree with you that the extra rides to/from Pittsburgh would greatly help, but it's up to Harrisburg to find the cash.