Henry Posner III has worked in the rail industry for more than 40 years, first with Conrail in the operating, marketing and sales offices and since 1987 as chairman of Pittsburgh-based Railroad Development Corp.

Through the railway investment and management firm, Posner has been involved with developing and overseeing freight systems in Belgium, France, Peru and Iowa, among others, as well as a passenger system in Germany.

But one place Posner’s never developed a system is in the Pittsburgh area. He’s out to change that with a proposal to operate a battery-powered electric passenger train on a soon-to-be-abandoned spur of the Allegheny Valley Railroad known as the Brilliant Branch between Aspinwall and Homewood.

The idea faces one huge problem: Allegheny County, under former County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, rebuffed Posner’s proposal to convert one set of tracks into a passenger rail line and the other into a recreational trail. Instead, the county has agreed to buy the Brilliant Branch and replace the track bed with a trail that would link to the trail system along the Allegheny River and carry across the river into the Homewood area.

Now, after working behind the scenes for more than five years, Posner is taking his effort public to build pressure to convince new County Executive Sara Innamorato to change her position and try his concept. He believes there is “no good reason” the Brilliant Branch couldn’t continue to be used for a rail and trail operation side by side.

“It’s an interesting business opportunity,” Posner said. “It’s a business concept which, so far, hasn’t been seen in the transit industry.”

Using the system

Posner is using the federal government’s little-known system for abandoning rail lines to bring his proposal to light: the Surface Transportation Board.

Under federal law, railroads that no longer have a use for a rail line have to get permission from the five-member board, which was created in 1995 to replace the former Interstate Commerce Commission. Since railroads often share track space, the board is responsible for making sure that eliminating the line wouldn’t have an adverse effect on another railroad’s ability to meet its service.

Last month, Allegheny Valley filed paperwork with the board to abandon the 3.6-mile Brilliant Branch and sell it to Allegheny County for $4.7 million, a deal reached last year while Fitzgerald was still county executive. The Allegheny RiverTrail Park has been working since 2015 on the trail project, which eventually could connect with a network that extends to Erie.

The start of that public process signaled Posner that it was time to take his proposal public by filing paperwork with the agency, asking it to consider his alternate proposal that would be done through Railroad Development Corp. affiliate Pop-Up Metro.

Although the board is typically a repository for rail line abandonment and doesn’t get involved in deciding the future use of tracks, Posner wants to use the agency as a forum to show broad support for his idea. In the last month, a series of nationally known rail and trail advocates have filed letters supporting his idea for a dual use of the Brilliant Branch.

“We have been quietly standing in the corner,” Posner said. “This is really the first time we have been able to take this to the public and show what we want to try. As these [letters of support] occur, there is emerging a broad show of support.”

The Brilliant Branch — an abandoned stretch of the Allegheny Railroad connecting Aspinwall and Homewood — viewed from Allegheny River Trail Park. (Pam Panchak/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Battery-operated trains

Pop-Up Metro’s concept, as explained by project analyst Max Nitke, would use battery-operated trains repurposed from the London Underground subway system to provide passenger service between Aspinwall and Homewood.

The two-car trains could carry nearly 200 passengers at a time, half of them standing, between Aspinwall and Homewood. Since they are electric, Nitke said, the trains would be much quieter than diesel freight trains and Amtrak passenger trains.

The goal would be to set up a transfer system to Pittsburgh Regional Transit’s Martin Luther King Jr. East Busway in Homewood, with easy travel to two of the state’s largest job centers in Oakland and Downtown Pittsburgh.

The proposal would be to set up as a turnkey operation, where Pop-Up Metro establishes the line and provides the trains, station platforms and charging facilities and turns them over to another operator, most likely PRT. PRT spokesman Adam Brandolph said the agency is aware of the proposal but hasn’t had any discussions with Pop-Up Metro because of the county’s trail agreement.

The battery-operated train concept isn’t used anywhere yet for public transit. Pop-Up operates a two-mile demonstration project at the site of the East Broad Top Railroad tourist train in Rockhill Furnace, Huntingdon County.

Nitke estimated that Pop-Up could establish passenger service for 35% to 40% of the cost of a regular railroad and have it ready in eight to 10 months.

“Harry is not looking to make money from this,” Nitke said. “We want to do something for Pittsburgh. There is plenty of room on that line for rails and trails.”

Difficult road ahead

While Posner is trying to drum up public support for the joint rail-and-trail project, Innamorato’s administration is waiting for final approval from the Surface Transportation Board before it begins final design of the trail. Advocates expect the trail, which will have five bridges as well as the river crossing, to have spectacular views when it is finished at least five years from now.

“The short information is, we have no intention of changing the county’s plans,” said Abigail Gardner, spokeswoman for Innamorato.

Posner isn’t ready to drop the idea, which he believes will generate “significant public interest.”

“This is a battle with the county, not the Allegheny Valley Railroad,” he said. “The county’s position has been consistent. However, it flies in the face of support from a significant portion of the community around us.

“Maybe we’ll see a different stance from the new administration when they see that support.”

The Brilliant Branch — an abandoned stretch of the Allegheny Railroad connecting Aspinwall and Homewood — viewed from Allegheny River Trail Park. (Pam Panchak/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Ed covers transportation at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at eblazina@unionprogress.com.

Ed Blazina

Ed covers transportation at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at eblazina@unionprogress.com.