» A state rail plan does not mean Pennsylvanian will move forward with a specific project. A lack of ambition, or a reflection of few funds?
The U.S. government’s unwillingness to commit to prioritizing certain rail corridors and its fear of moving beyond empty rhetoric to describe the country’s future rail system are frustrating reactions to the sometimes paralyzing federal system. But intercity rail advocates should take some comfort in the fact that certain states are taking advantage of their governing responsibilities to promote projects and develop detailed long-term proposals. The investment made by states like California, Illinois, and Wisconsin in specific new lines is one indication of this take-the-first-step strategy; so are the proliferation of state-level rail plans.
Several states have assembled long-term reports that indicate how spending would be distributed over the years; Virginia’s 2025 proposal, for instance, highlights what could be accomplished with $10 billion in funding. It doesn’t identify a source for that money, but at least it takes the important step of making a case for how and where investments should be made.
Pennsylvania’s new passenger and freight rail plan, released last week, doesn’t go as far: though it suggests expanded train service along a number of corridors by 2035, it doesn’t pinpoint specific solutions nor establish a sum it considers vital for rail transportation’s future. In absence of adequate federal funding and in the context of a miserable recession, is this as far as the state should go? Or is Pennsylvania simply making a list and hoping it suffices as a plan?
The Keystone State put together similar plans in 2001, 2003, and 2007. The state has the fifth-largest rail system in the country.
The state will need more planning in the future. This study recommends a series of passenger and freight lines for future service, but suggests that each will have to undergo a feasibility study, then a service development plan, then finally be submitted for federal review and funding before improvements are implemented. Especially in the context of the failure Governor Ed Rendell’s plan to toll I-80 for transportation purposes, better rail service is held off for the long-term. No one’s talking about two-hour high-speed rail service between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, no matter the merits.
The passenger routes identified for improvements include the currently active Keystone Corridor between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh; the Capitol Corridor between Washington and Pittsburgh; the Northeast Corridor; and the Buffalo-Cleveland Corridor. It also promotes for reactivation New York-Scranton Service and a line through the Lehigh Valley.
States the plan quite plainly: “It is recognized that there are severe funding constraints that significantly impact and make achieving the passenger rail—as described by the high-speed rail, core, and extended passenger rail networks—in this report by 2035 a virtual impossibility.”
Nonetheless, the study does emphasize areas of potential investment for all lines: it would take all corridors up to good repair and eliminate at-grade crossings. For freight, it would ensure the possibility of double-stacked, extra-heavy trains, which cannot run on many of the state’s trackage.
For the Keystone Corridor, the report is a bit more specific. The state completed a $145 million renovation project in 2006 that increased top speeds along the line to 110 mph and significantly reduced travel time between Philadelphia and Harrisburg. That program has resulted in a 74% increase in ridership as well as a decrease in per-passenger subsidy, serving as a model for other states making modest investments in their existing rail lines. The 2035 study would increase top speeds along the line to 125 mph by closing all grade crossings and allow trains to make the link between Pennsylvania’s largest city and its capital in 1h15, twenty minutes faster than possible today. The state requested more than $400 million in funds for these improvements under the stimulus’ high-speed rail package but received only $26 million.
That would keep Pittsburgh seven hours from Philadelphia by rail, despite being only 300 miles away. The two metropolitan areas together house more than eight million inhabitants.
The approach promoted by this plan is well-intentioned but ultimately disappointing. While it takes the “reasonable” tact — there’s no money, so how can the state endorse any major improvement? — in doing so, it cuts off any possibility of encouraging the public or legislature to act on anything other than the status quo.
By sketching out only the vaguest of potential improvements to existing rail lines, the state is implicitly setting the bar exceedingly low. Why not start with a big vision and work down from there? What would be the negative consequences there — letting down the taxpayer? All this plan does is imply that there’s nothing exciting to be done, giving the impression that better train operations aren’t really that feasible.
But Pennsylvania does have serious potential for improved rail services. Someone just needs to point that out.
Image above: Pennsylvania Priority Passenger Rail Corridors Map, from Pennsylvania State Rail Plan