Monday, May 15, 2017

Pennsylvania Senate Transportation Committee

The Pennsylvania Senate Committee for Transportation passed State Resolution 76 P.N 827 on May 10, 2017. It directs the Budget and Finance Committee to conduct a study of the feasibility of providing two additional passenger rail trips daily between Pittsburgh and its impact on existing rail service. A whole house Senate vote is scheduled for May 22, 2017.

This is puzzling. The Resolution cites The Norfolk Southern Woodside Consulting firm study of 2005 and the 2014 Keystone West High Speed Rail study. Both of them state that additional passenger service would impair Norfolk Southern freight operations. In order to avoid interference with Norfolk Southern freight service, portions of the mainline removed by Conrail before Norfolk Southern ownership in 1999 would have to be restored. Minimally, track lifted through the Amtrak station in Pittsburgh and the fourth track lifted from Gallitzin to Altoona would have to be restored. This would be the minimum to add two 5.5 hour passenger trains NOT interfering with Norfolk Southern freight trains.

The cost to do so would be quite expensive and doing nothing in terms of improved speed. It only would provide the capacity required for the track owner, Norfolk Southern, to be able to operate freight trains without interference.

Freight operations are slower than passenger operations. Without the extra track capacity slower freight trains on the line, some 80 to 100 a day, would have interference as they would be held in order for passenger trains to maintain their schedules and weave through the mass of freight trains. Without the extra capacity, the Norfolk Southern has no logical basis for accepting additional Amtrak passenger trains.

The miles by highway from Amtrak Station at Pittsburgh and the Amtrak Station at Harrisburg is 204 miles. Railroad miles are 258. Highway is 3 hours 14 minutes. Railroad is 5 hours thirty minutes. In order to make the trip time competitive would require major Higher Speed Rail system engineering and construction on the existing Pittsburgh to Harrisburg line. That is, higher speed capability to 110 mph. That would enable an average 80 mph operation for 3 hours 12 minutes.

The likelihood of a legislature that is unable to understand that the Pennsylvania budget is not a spending problem but a revenue problem makes the SR76 a questionable exercise.

The Federal Government policy has been to look at passenger train operations as being a State problem rather than a national commerce issue. So, the cost of any changes to the Pittsburgh to Harrisburg line would be largely born by the Commonwealth. The cost of additional equipment would largely be born by the Commonwealth. The logic of ending a passenger service at Pittsburgh rather than Cleveland speaks to the limited vision of both the Pennsylvania legislature and the Federal government.

The 2014 study looked at the cost of electrification west of Harrisburg. Its expense would be quite high. Electrification of an American railroad should be part of a national effort to electrify the railroad system to increase its capacity and create a transportation system not dependent upon foreign oil imports. As such, electrification is both a national defense concept as well as a conservation project. However, locomotives now exist capable of operation in partial electrified zones. For example, should track capacity be created to support additional passenger trains at some point it my justify partial electrification on the grade from Gallitzin to Altoona.

Given that the two Pennsylvanian passenger trains serve Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, Philadelphia and New York and in doing so use a locomotive that collects electric power from overhead lines then has that electric locomotive changed for a diesel locomotive in Philadelphia; the studies did not consider using a locomotive designed to be both a overhead electric type in combination with a diesel in a single locomotive. Such a locomotive is in service by New Jersey Transit. If a dual service locomotive were used about 20 minutes would be saved at Philadelphia. More importantly, service could be built out. First, as electrification ends at Harrisburg, an initial buildout could be to operate passenger service to Lewistown. That would add an hour to the schedule. But, it would provide additional service for nearby State College and the Pennsylvania State University. And, it would attract commuter riders to Harrisburg. As passenger traffic develops there would be justification to extend service in steps eventually to Pittsburgh.

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