Pennsylvania has reached a formal agreement with Norfolk Southern Railroad to make $200 million worth of station improvements and begin a second daily Amtrak passenger trip from Pittsburgh to New York City.
The state has been working with the railroad for more than 10 years to increase Amtrak passenger service, especially between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg, but Norfolk Southern is a key player because it owns the tracks that are mostly used to move freight. Then-Gov. Tom Wolf and Norfolk announced in February 2022 that they were finalizing an agreement for more passenger service and the state Department of Transportation announced Friday that they have signed a formal deal.
The agreement calls for the state to make track and signal improvements at five stations to accommodate the additional passenger trips. That work at Pittsburgh, Johnstown, Portage, Altoona and Harrisburg, which is already being designed, will create additional side tracks to allow freight trains to move out of the way so passenger trains can pass through as well as signal improvements.
“That’s excellent news,” said Mark Spada of Western Pennsylvanians for Passenger Rail. “That certainly means everything is in place for this to move forward as soon as possible.”
Meredith Biggica, PennDOT’s deputy secretary for multimodal transportation, said in an interview that Norfolk Southern already has started design work on the track and signal improvements. Construction should begin in 2024 and the service should begin in 2026.
“We’ll be able to not only increase service but improve safety through this action,” she said.
Right now, the one daily trip on the Pennsylvanian leaves Pittsburgh at 7:30 a.m. and arrives in Harrisburg at 12:53 p.m. with the return trip leaving Harrisburg at 2:36 p.m. and arriving in Pittsburgh at 10:01 p.m. The proposed new schedule would have trains leaving Pittsburgh at 7 a.m. and noon and leaving Harrisburg at 9:46 a.m. and 4:40 p.m.
Jeremy Waldrup, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, said in a statement the added trip will be “a great next step” to improving access to Pittsburgh from Eastern cities. “We see this as a much-needed component in making our region more livable and competitive in attracting new businesses and residents to Western PA,” he said.
Under the agreement, the state will pay for the railroad to make the improvements and the railroad will assume ownership and maintenance. The state has applied for funds through the Federal Railroad Administration to help pay for the work.
“This agreement lays the groundwork for expanded passenger rail service in Western Pennsylvania while simultaneously preserving a critical freight rail corridor,” PennDOT Secretary Mike Carroll said in a news release.
“Ensuring more Pennsylvanians have access to safe and reliable transportation to Western PA will reduce commute times, help connect hundreds of thousands of residents and boost local economies. This expansion of service on the Pennsylvanian will provide key mobility and economic benefits.”
Norfolk Southern said it is “excited” to make rail improvements that will provide better service for freight and passenger traffic.
“This is a win-win agreement that would not be possible without the dedication and collaboration of our state officials, who share our vision for enhanced rail service across the Keystone State,” Mike McClellan, senior vice president and chief strategy officer, said in the news release.
Spada said residents who have pushed for the additional service will have a responsibility once it is operating.
“The big thing to do will be to make sure those trains are full so they keep running,” he said.