Thursday, March 14, 2013

Setting the Record Straight

Somehow it's unsurprising that, in our state's game of political brinkmanship between PennDOT and Amtrak, the right wing supports killing the daily Pennsylvanian. The right wing's op-eds are fact-free tiresome rehashes. So fact-free, in fact, that in an amusing inversion of the norm, the comments are more educated than the articles themselves.

It is interesting that both rags appear to hail from the Pittsburgh area, and of course one--the Tribune-Review--makes the leap that Pittsburgh's ridership situation was symptomatic of the line as a whole:
Total Pittsburgh station passenger counts are falling, and The Pennsylvanian — with just one morning departure and one evening arrival there daily — “almost certainly” is serving “fewer than 100,000 per year or 270 people per day” and losing riders, which means even higher future subsidies, he writes.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Only one Pennsylvanian station suffered from declining ridership last year; as I've already explained, Pittsburgh suffers from a scheduling quirk that necessarily undermines its boarding counts (that is, departures are either too early or too late).
And in direct contradiction to the article's claims,  the Pennsylvanian's total ridership rose last year, as it had the year before and the year before that. The most recent figure I know of is a ridership of 207,016, a 2.2% increase over the prior year. This is not the Fort Pitt, whose ridership was 30 a day when it was discontinued. Rising ridership means more demand for the train--implying the most harmful possible move is to cut it.

Third--again, as I've already explained--the Pennsylvanian is price-competitive to the Turnpike for cross-state trips. It's not I-80 it's competing against. At any given time the effective cost for traversing the state on the Turnpike is a $30 toll plus approximately $30 in gas--that is, $60 total. Yes, the Turnpike is faster to Harrisburg--but the Pennsylvanian clearly supports other niches.
Riding The Pennsylvanian to Harrisburg costs $40 and takes 51⁄2 hours with stops. Dr. Haulk notes that Megabus has three daily nonstop Pittsburgh-Harrisburg trips that cost $14 or $16 and take 31⁄2 to 4 hours.
Dr. Haulk misses the point. It's not Pittsburgh that is fueling the Pennsylvanian in its current iteration--it's Altoona, Lewistown, Huntingdon--places where Megabus doesn't stop. And guess what? Altoona, Tyrone, Lewistown, Huntingdon--all have mid-morning or midday departures! Again, Pittsburgh's ridership isn't suffering because the train is a bad train, per se--it is because the train's schedule is built around convenience for the other side of Horseshoe Curve. Or, to put it bluntly, Pittsburgh's Pennsylvanian ridership is so low because there's only one Pennsylvanian--and it's oriented to Philadelphia.

Don't agitate to cut a useful service for Altoonans, Tyronians, Lewistowners, and Huntingdonians, friend Pittsburghers. Agitate instead to add a train useful to you.

But it's the Sentinel that commits the most grievous sins. When it says
If the state’s going to spend money on rail transportation, it should do so where money would be better spent. Continuing to upgrade the Harrisburg-to-Philadelphia line, or investing with NJ Transit on plans to bring commuter rail to the Scranton area, seem more palpable than maintaining money-losing service to Pittsburgh,
it is comparing apples and oranges (at the very least). The Keystones are (supposed to be) hourly service; naturally, when the train comes once an hour instead of once a day, it is significantly easier to take it. Lancaster demonstrates this. The still-a-long-ways-away NJ Transit Scranton proposal would probably not even be hourly past East Stroudsburg. But these trains run as corridor commuter trains. The Pennsylvanian is, at its heart, an intercity train linking Pennsylvania's two great urban heartbeats.

The sad thing is that the Sentinel bulldozed through the truth on its way to its fatuous conclusion.
Rail experts say that the line could prove profitable and popular one day, but getting there would require tens or hundreds of millions of dollars — some subsidized at the federal level, to be sure, but some on the backs of Pennsylvania taxpayers — to realign and straighten the route to allow for high-speed access.
Probably Almost certainly not the best quote, given that running speed can be brought up quite a bit in the current infrastructural envelope--but this, at least, hints at where we can start. It is not eliminating what is very much a useful service; it is not by investing the many billions of capital needed to make it full-fat HSR into the line whole. It is by incremental additions, incremental improvements. You can't justify infrastructural investment by divesting the infrastructure you already have.

And the first of these improvements is a second daily train, oriented to Pittsburgh rather than Philadelphia. Do that, and be surprised by how suddenly useful the train becomes.

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