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PennDOT to finish Pittsburgh passenger rail study by April

By , - Last modified: March 1, 2013 at 4:39 PM

Pennsylvania expects to finish by April a study of possible improvements along the rail corridor between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh, but after two years PennDOT won't say what that study found nor what it means for continued Amtrak passenger service on the “Pennsylvanian” line.

Since 2010, PennDOT has been studying passenger rail options along the western route after it received $750,000 in federal stimulus money for the project focused on the feasibility of high-speed rail and service improvements. That study could be complete by late March or April, said Erin Waters, a PennDOT spokeswoman.

However, PennDOT would not comment on the the study's findings until its complete, she said.

The department also would not speculate on what the study could mean to the Amtrak passenger service along the Pennsylvanian line, Waters said. The line is facing an ultimatum on whether it will continue at all due to a 2008 federal law that requires states to cover Amtrak losses. Pennsylvania has until October to decide whether it will cover the approximately $6 million costs on that line, Waters said.

"We can choose not to invest that money and then Amtrak would have to decide on what happens to that route," Waters said.

The Pennsylvanian line, which Amtrak defines as New York City to Pittsburgh, had ridership of 212,006 in fiscal year 2012 that ended in September, according to Amtrak reports. That was 2.2 percent higher than ridership in 2011.

The eastern portion, known as the Keystone that Amtrak defines as Harrisburg to Philadelphia to New York City, had ridership of more than 1.4 million in 2012, or a 5.8 percent increase from a year ago, according to Amtrak.

Amtrak continues to work closely with Pennsylvania on the federal law changes and the October deadline and is looking for the best way forward, Amtrak spokesman Craig Schulz said.

"We very much want to continue all the corridor services we offer today," he said.

The Pennsylvanian line west of Harrisburg runs on Virginia-based Norfolk Southern Corp. rail lines and that consideration is important to both the future of the passenger services, as well as any improvements to passenger services, such as high-speed rail that the state is studying.

The increased freight traffic that many railroads are seeing certainly will be an issue, as well.

Norfolk Southern issued this statement today to the Business Journal:

"The Norfolk Southern line between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh carries between 50 and 70 freight trains daily, and it's one of the most critical segments in NS's 22-state network. Adding additional passenger trains will require a substantial investment to increase significant track capacity, and that investment must ensure that our ability to move freight is not harmed. (The Federal Highway Administration) projects total freight shipments among all transportation modes will increase from 17.6 billion tons in 2011 to 28.5 billion tons by 2040, and freight railroads are expected to play a central role in meeting that demand increase."

Editor's note: This article has been updated to add comments from Norfolk Southern.

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