Commuter Rail Intercity Rail Leipzig Philadelphia

For rail services, downtown sometimes isn’t the right place for a terminus


» For commuter rail, through-running is becoming increasingly popular in city after city looking to take advantage of faster travel times, direct suburb-to-suburb services, and more downtown stops. Leipzig, Germany, whose City Tunnel opened in 2013, is a case in point.

There’s a romantic notion of the downtown rail terminal in the American popular culture, often expressed in movies and books. It’s a scene that is easy to conjure up in one’s mind: The steaming locomotive comes slowly to a halt at the end of a track, passengers stream out into a giant waiting room, and from there they exit into the bustling metropolis. The railroad terminal is the physical manifestation of the end of a journey and the exciting moment of arrival.

For railroad companies and government agencies, the need to create this welcoming travel environment has inspired multi-billion-dollar station redevelopment schemes. The argument made has been that in order to achieve the appropriate travel experience, people should arrive for train travel—whether intercity or commuter—in one, massive facility where trains begin and end their trips.

But what if this orientation towards rail terminals is actually reducing the effectiveness of our rail system? What if we eliminated terminals downtown altogether and just replaced them with regular old stops on the line, leaving terminals for outer suburban places?

European cities from Basel to Brussels have done just that, replacing commuter rail services ending at central depots with through-running operations where trains stop at several places in the city rather than one thanks to new rail tunnels. They’re expensive investments, but they may make commuting a faster and more enjoyable experience.

The Leipzig experience

Until 2013, commuter rail service in Leipzig, a half-million-person city in eastern Germany, departed from two major train stations—the Hauptbahnhof just north of the center and the Bayerishcher Bahnhof south of it. This produced a peculiar situation in which people traveling from one suburb to another had no easy connection between trains and also required travelers to make a transfer to a local bus or tram—or take a walk—to get to the center of the city.

As early as 1915, city planners plotted a connection between the stations (and some preliminary work was actually completed), but not until the 1990s was a plan finalized, and construction on the City Tunnel didn’t get underway until 2003. The roughly one-mile subway link added two intermediary stations right in the center of downtown (including one at Markt, pictured above). Though the project was years late and its budget exploded to €960 million—of which the Saxony region covered about half the costs—the project was completed.

The following map illustrates the connection the tunnel has provided: A direct link through the center of the city offering a route for six S-Bahn (regional rail) services.

Leipzig S-Bahn

The tunnel saved people using the system lots of time—and now about 55,000 riders are using the link on a typical weekday. It’s well used.

During my time in Leipzig in May as part of the International Transport Forum’s Media Travel Programme, I spoke with Mayor Burkhard Jung about the value this project brought to his city.

Jung, who was a primary advocate for the project, emphasized that the new stations in the center of the city dramatically improved the local economic environment. “Everything changed,” he told me; “it helped the whole business district” by bringing many more visitors. Suburbanites, who once would have avoided the center, or at least only been to the areas directly near the stations, suddenly had very frequent rail access to subway stations directly in the downtown.

Jung also pointed out that the project was contributing to the overall goal of getting more people on transit. “We can’t solve the emissions, noise problems if we don’t solve the mode split problem,” he said. According to him, the city is already heading in the right direction, with a clear shift away from private passenger cars over the last five years.

That’s no surprise when you think about it. Passengers heading in to Leipzig on the S-Bahn who used to have just one available destination downtown—the train line’s terminus—now have four to choose from. That opens up four times as many possibilities in terms of places to go for a night out or a weekend shopping trip.

Meanwhile, the train itself has become more useful, now that instead of just ending downtown, it heads off to another suburban location. And instead of passengers having to run to another potentially far-away platform at the main station to switch to a destination not on one’s train line, they can just get off at any of the City Tunnel’s stations and wait for the next train, since they all operate on the same tracks.

The construction of the City Tunnel did not mean the end of terminus-based rail services entirely in Leipzig. The Hauptbahnhof—which happens to be the largest railway station in the world and also a major shopping center—is still being used, though its focus has shifted to intercity trains. Some intercity trains, however, will be shifted to the City Tunnel in the coming year, though there are capacity limitations.

Many other cities have invested similarly

Leipzig’s investment in its new urban rail tunnel has brought new vitality to its center city but it is in some ways late to the game. In fact, many of its European peers have built similar center-city rail lines over the past few decades in order to provide through-running rail service stopping at many downtown destinations.

Berlin opened its Stadtbahn in the 1880s, providing intercity and commuter service on an elevated line running east-west through the center of the city. Even today, long-distance German high-speed trains hail at several of its stops as they travel from or through Berlin. In the 1930s, Berlin complemented this service with an S-Bahn subway running north-south through the center.

Other cities followed this trend of providing tunneled service for commuter and intercity rail through their centers. Brussels connected its north and south stations in 1952; in 1967, Madrid linked its major stations with the “Tunnel of Laughter;” in 1969, Paris inaugurated its RER regional rail network with a tunnel straight through the center of the city; Munich provided an S-Bahn connection in 1972; Zurich linked up its S-Bahn trains in 1990; Basel built its network in 1997; Bilbao followed in 1999; and Milan began providing inter-suburban train service through downtown in 2004.

That’s hardly an exhaustive list, and many other cities are planning even more: Brussels is building another tunnel to create its own RER network by 2025; Berlin, Geneva, Munich, Stuttgart, and Zurich are all planning or building additional cross-city regional rail links; and London has a new regional rail line under construction and another planned.

Even South American cities are getting into the mix. In Buenos Aires, the new RER network, which includes a cross-city tunneled link (shown in the following video, in Spanish, but worth the watch even if you don’t understand the language) is expected to double suburban rail ridership.

Each of these cities has identified the benefits of combining frequent and fast regional rail networks with through-running train services under their centers. The benefits are clear: More destinations for riders; more accessibility to locations downtown; and the ability to get from one side of a region to another without transferring between trains. They’ve also saved their rail operators considerable expense by allowing them to turn their trains around somewhere other than downtown, which is the most difficult place to do so.

This is a particular benefit because peak times, which require many services heading in or out of downtown, require train operators to stack trains at the terminus, which takes up lots of storage space (in expensive areas of the city) and necessitates many platforms at the terminus, since there aren’t any other downtown station stops. A through-running service allows trains to be stored elsewhere and passengers to be distributed among several stops.

For example, Paris’ RER line A, a through-running regional rail service, carries about as many people daily (more than one million riders) on just two tracks as all services operated by commuter rail services in New York City, including Long Island Rail Road, Metro-North, and New Jersey Transit, which require dozens of platforms at the two Manhattan terminals, Grand Central and Penn Station, and which require acres of train storage areas near downtown, either under Grand Central or at the huge yards on Manhattan’s West Side or Sunnyside. In Paris, trains stop at six central-city subway stops, distributing ridership, and train storage is on the suburban fringe.

Cities with through-running regional rail services have moved away from the terminus-as-destination model of providing suburban and intercity rail service. That’s a transition that benefits riders and the cities they live in.

What potential do we have for through-running in the U.S.?

In the 1980s, Philadelphia opened its Center City Commuter Connection, a new subway for regional rail trains running directly through downtown, with three stops along the way. The project did, in fact, provide riders using that city’s commuter system significantly more alternatives for destinations downtown. Ridership has increased by more than 50 percent over the past 15 years, increasing from 80,000 typical daily trips in 1996 to 135,000 last year.

But because of limited funding, a circuitous regional network (many trains heading east through the tunnel actually end up heading west, and vice-verse), and a lack of commitment to maintaining high train service frequencies or through-running services in general, Philadelphia’s system has not reached its potential. Nonetheless, the infrastructure is there.

New York also has the infrastructure for through-running between Connecticut, Long Island, and New Jersey thanks to tunnels under Penn Station, but trains are segregated between three operators, each of which only has one terminal station in the Manhattan core. Through-running would require cooperation between these operators and, to optimize ridership distribution (to prevent long station stops for boarding and unloading), additional new subway stations in the core, which may be technically difficult and would certainly be pricey.

Other American cities, including Baltimore, Boston, and Chicago, have commuter rail termini located relatively close to one another but which would require new, expensive downtown tunnels to connect them. Are these top infrastructure priorities for cities that have many transportation needs? That’s an open question. But what is undoubtedly true is that if we want more effective commuter rail services that serve more people, we should at least be considering them—a step few U.S. cities have taken thus far.

Image at top: Leipzig City Tunnel Markt station, photograph by Yonah Freemark. Map from City Tunnel Leipzig.

Finance Philadelphia Pittsburgh

Philadelphia May Accept Money to Privatize Station Naming; Pittsburgh Considers Similar Move

» SEPTA board votes Thursday on plan to rename station on behalf of AT&T in exchange for $3 million. Is the public interest being sacrificed?

The last two years have been extremely difficult for virtually every American transit agency — they’ve been slaughtered by declining tax revenue and been forced to both decrease services and increase fares, despite a general uptick in the market of people interested in riding public transportation. This lack of funds — and a realization that Washington is not riding in on a white horse — has led agencies to do things many wouldn’t have considered appropriate just a few years back, just to make a quick buck.

In Philadelphia, that may mean the renaming of the Broad Street Subway’s Pattison Avenue terminus to the AT&T Station by August if the SEPTA regional transit board agrees to the deal in a session later this week. Pattison Avenue is adjacent to the city’s major sports stadiums, which themselves are frequently subject to re-namings based on changes in sponsorship. The five-year deal would net the cash-starved agency $3 million and include the corporate name on maps and signs throughout the large rail and bus system; this deal could be the first among many. Pittsburgh’s Port Authority, currently building a light rail link to the stadium district called the North Shore Connector, is considering whether it should follow a similar strategy and seek out sponsors for its infrastructure projects.

Should the name of a business be ingrained onto the transit map of any city? Is there a point where the public sphere must be separated once and for all from the private world?

Philadelphia is not the first American city to make this move. New York’s MTA agreed to affix the name “Barclays Center” to Brooklyn’s Atlantic Avenue station for $200,000 annually last year, but that agreement does not remove the current name, it just lengthens it. Cleveland’s Euclid Corridor bus rapid transit line was renamed the Health Line after the local Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals, though that project was a brand-new service. And Detroit’s planned streetcar will include stations whose names will be sold to sponsors.

But Philadelphia’s decision could be going further because not only does it remove the current name entirely from maps, but it does so to existing stations that have retained their current names for decades. Even worse, the names have no relevance to the areas they serve — it’s not like AT&T has a major facility at Pattison Station. The whole situation raises the frightening prospect in the near future that, instead of riding the Broad Street Subway from City Hall to Pattison, people will take the Coca-Cola Trolley from Pizza Hut to AT&T. Moreover, five years later, considering the current rate of changes in corporate names and sponsorships, all of those names may have to be modified!

There are two fundamental problems with the idea that station names can be sold to the highest bidder: One, doing so challenges a fundamental element of transit service provision, that it is a public service; and two, that the names provide an important connection between the line-based geography of transit systems and the street or neighborhood-based geography of the city around stations.

Transit agencies today already find ways to pull private dollars into the system through advertising revenue, so it would be unreasonable to argue that American bus or rail operations are idealistic models of public services unaffected by the negative and intrusive aspects of the capitalist environment around them. But there are limits: Taxpayers foot the majority of the bill for most transit systems, so they shouldn’t have to be overwhelmed by ads providing only minimal additional revenues.

What may most infuriating about the sale of station naming rights is just how cheap they are relative to transit agency size. SEPTA’s annual budgets are over one billion dollars each, so the sale of a station name will do almost nothing to relieve the fiscal problems the organization faces. It seems unfair to change the name of a station to that of a business when most money comes from the public treasury; decisions should as a result be based in the public interest, not in that of a corporation, even if it gives some money to the agency. A compromise might be New York’s solution of adding the corporate name to the end of the existing name.

But Philadelphia’s approach — simply axing the current title — will remove the sense that the station’s name in some way denotes the urban geography of the place it serves. Most rail transit stations are named after streets (New York’s Subway exemplifies this), and for people who live in walkable city centers, that’s incredibly important, since it allows instant information about where trains and buses are when they stop. The name AT&T Station provides absolutely no information to anyone about where in the city it is.

Similarly, with neighborhood-based naming, such as used by Washington’s Metro, the station becomes the core of the community and becomes a meeting point for people coming from different parts of the city. Can you imagine people discussing whether to meet up in AT&T or Pizza Hut — and meaning the station areas, not the stores? It seems likely that transit agencies will be forced to add supplemental information on all signs to indicate just where each corporate station is located.

Removing the geography-based name and replacing it with a corporate name virtually ensures that either infrequent commuters are fated to be completely lost in a transit system with completely irrelevant station names (especially if it’s underground), or that maps and signage are threatened with being overwhelmed with multiple layers of information, some important, some not, an end product that certainly won’t add ease getting around either.

My major concern for Philadelphia and cities considering similar name sell-offs — the more wide-scale, the more problematic — is that they are sacrificing the ability of transit riders to find their way around the city. That seems to be a bad compromise in favor of a small amount of extra cash.

Image above: A Philadelphia SEPTA commuter train near Paoli Station, from Flickr user jpmueller99

Aerial Medellin New York Philadelphia

Searching for Interest in the Daily Commute

» As gondolas catch on in South America, should other cities search for ways to make transit trips more interesting?

When I lived in New York, I took the subway from Atlantic Avenue in Downtown Brooklyn to my office at Union Square everyday. It’s easy to get between the two — there are several different lines that make the trip in about fifteen minutes — but I would inevitably choose to walk out of my way to take the N Broadway train rather than the closer 4 and 5 Lexington Avenue lines.

There’s a simple explanation: whereas the N soars high above the East River along the Manhattan Bridge as it leaves Brooklyn, the Lexington Avenue lines run underwater. The three minutes it takes to cross that bridge brought to my mornings the light of the sun and magnificent views of New York’s skyscrapers, parks, and riverfront. I’m not sure how much the other people riding with me cared, but it certainly woke me up.

The experience of riders on the subways that run across the Manhattan Bridge — the B, D, N, and Q trains do so — is a rarity. Few typical commutes on transit include aerial views of the city or the natural environment. Most transportation rights-of-way in central cities are either hidden below ground or surrounded by ugliness. Most daily transit commutes, if they aren’t downright sad, certainly aren’t particularly inspiring. Should that change?

Steven Dale, who publishes the Gondola Project, a year-long exploration of cable-propelled transit, toured South America earlier this year to gain insight into efforts to connect often out-of-the-way neighborhoods with broader transportation networks. In Medellin, Columbia, the local transit system wanted to connect isolated barrios on mountaintops to the metro lines below, so it built a two kilometer initial line that hovers above the city and now carries 40,000 riders a day. What began as a bit of an experiment has expanded into an eight kilometer network at a much cheaper price than would cost an equivalent rail system. Caracas, Venezuela, among other cities, has begun developing similar technologies.

Dale has proposed a series of gondolas for his home city, Toronto. Gondolas — like the télécabines found at ski resorts — and aerial tramways — such as New York’s Roosevelt Island tram or the Portland Aerial Tram featured in the image above — are different technologies, but they offer the same advantages of carrying commuters above instead of through the city.

What Dale describes as a “Disruptive Technology” — a “simple, convenient-to-use innovations that initially are used by only unsophisticated customers at the low end of markets,” a result of difficult geography and limited local funds — is to me a prime example of cities thinking differently about how to make the daily lives of their inhabitants more interesting. Wouldn’t you like to be able to glide above the city on the way to work?

There are of course major limitations to aerial vehicles like the gondolas Dale has highlighted; their maximum running speeds are relatively slow and they lack the ability to handle anywhere near the capacity of traditional train systems. But those issues are besides the point: the issue here is that these South American cities are improving public transit in a way that brings an element of joy to the daily lives of their users. How frequently can you say that about most bus lines?

Earlier this year, Jarrett Walker pointed to what he refers to as transit’s “Zoom-Whoosh Problem.” Noting San Francisco’s BART regional rail system, he suggests that transit benefits when it feels fast, modern, powerful — qualities it too often lacks. But that sensation is ephemeral — once you know the BART sensation, it loses some of its excitement: It becomes mundane. Washington’s Metro, designed in a similar era, is an underground architectural monument — a fantastic play on the use of concrete and light — but after a while, it begins to feel a bit gray and boring. Indeed, that’s the problem with any form of transportation that generates interest as a result of its newness; at some point, that feeling wears off.

The efficiency of urban subways, after all, does have its downsides.

That’s why the perspectives offered by South America’s aerial gondolas are so marvelous. They suggests that modern public transportation can be made interesting not so much because of its technological advancement, but rather because of the views it offers onto the beauty of the human and natural environments that surround our cities. The mountains or river in the distance will never grow tiring; nor will looking at the people staring out from their balconies or the stores hawking their wares.

It’s true, of course, that it makes little sense to build a gondola in many cities — many places lack major elevation changes or large natural obstacles that preference an investment in a mode of transportation that simply goes over everything that’s around it. The two North American examples I cited above — in Portland and New York — are both responses to geographical difficulties.

But you don’t need to build aerial trams to give people a more interesting, joyous experience when they’re making their daily commutes to and from work — you don’t even have to have that great of a view. To coincide with the complete renovation of Philadelphia’s Market Street Elevated, artist Stephen Powers created dozens of beautiful murals on the sides of decrepit surrounding buildings in a series entitled A Love Letter for You visible primarily by train riders.

We should see more of the same. One of the great advantages of riding transit is that you actually have the chance to take in what’s outside the window; you don’t have to pay attention to the “road.” We just need to give people something to look at.

Update, 15 June: Steven Dale responds on The Gondola Project to this post, arguing that gondolas “can exploit rather than just deal with natural obstacles” — they aren’t as limited as I suggest above. I think this makes sense: It is true that you can install an aerial transportation system much more easily than a ground-based one, and this means that barriers to transportation for other modes suddenly become opportunities. Dale also suggests that I underestimate the ridership potential of cable-propelled transit; I admit that it’s unfair to compare capacity of a gondola with a metro, since they don’t address the same markets. For more of his thoughtful discussion, check out his site.

Image above: The Portland Aerial Tram, from Flickr user

Finance Infrastructure Philadelphia Pittsburgh

Pennsylvania Calls Special Session to Resolve Transportation Funding Crisis

» After losing bid to install tolls along Interstate 80, state looks to other solutions to impending transportation funding gap. An opportunity to rethink the state role in transport.

Today, Pennsylvania state legislators will meet to fill a massive $472 million gap in the transportation budget — almost ten percent of the overall $6.1 billion in road and transit spending planned for this year. Governor Ed Rendell called the session after his plan to toll Interstate 80 fell apart due to a federal law that makes it illegal to use revenues gained from a Washington-funded road on something else. The I-80 tolls would have generated up to $950 million in annual revenue once the infrastructure was put into place by 2011 as originally planned.

The need to assemble a special legislative session comes at a terrible time for the state. Pennsylvania’s road and transit systems need $3 billion more a year, a 50% increase, just to remain in a state of good repair — and that estimate includes only $500 million for transit, arguably not enough. Meanwhile, the state’s ambitions for improved intercity rail services and better local transit in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh need billions more to be implemented.

Pennsylvania has a number of potential funding options from which to choose: Easiest would be raising its already relatively high 32.3¢/gallon fuel tax. A 10¢/gallon increase would raise an estimated $620 million a year. But other possibilities include tolling state-funded roads, encouraging public-private partnerships, establishing local option sales taxes (currently mostly forbidden in the state), and introducing a vehicle-miles traveled fee (VMT). Wanting to avoid hurting too much of an already weak economy, the state is likely to select some combination of these options.

With inadequate federal aid, Pennsylvania’s situation is likely to become more and more familiar for states throughout the country, all of which are having trouble maintaining planned expenditures because of a decline in tax revenues. But the need to raise revenues locally opens up a number of opportunities that are denied by relying on Washington to fund transportation.

Conservatives frequently make the argument that federal fuel taxes should simply be reassigned to states based on the source of those funds because locals “know better” than Washington when it comes to choosing how to spend the money.

I’m no proponent of lessened federal involvement in choosing how those funds are spent; immediately reapportioning national funds to the states would inevitably mean fewer funds for transit just about everywhere because most state legislatures are dominated by rural factions. And state DOTs are too frequently highway-oriented to take seriously their claims that they would treat all modes equally.

Yet with a need to find increasing revenues to maintain roads and transit in usable condition, states may have no choice but to increase their local funding commitment above and beyond the federal contribution. Pennsylvania’s special session demonstrates that there is a desire on the part of states to make that happen — they’re not going to simply let their infrastructure resources fall apart.

This requires states and their leaders to take a bigger political role in setting transportation priorities. If states raise their own revenues, they will be able to choose how funds are spent, and it’s up to the legislatures and governors to make those decisions. The specter of even more power for state DOTs should encourage advocates of transportation alternatives to push for increased spending on transit, bike lanes, and pedestrian resources at the state capital, not just in Washington.

This is not an impossible dream; since the Bush Administration, the federal DOT has altered its vision of transportation priorities dramatically — it’s quite clear that the Obama Administration is making a point to emphasize livable communities and alternative forms of transport, a complete turnaround from former Secretary Mary Peters’ road obsession. This kind of change did not come randomly but after years of lobbying from advocates and the resulting decision of the mainline Democratic Party to place itself on the side of those who want alternatives to private automobiles. We need to see similar transformations at the state level, and when we do, there will be nothing to fear from getting the states more involved in raising revenue and spending on transportation.

A funding crisis may thus encourage everyone to think differently about the role states play in choosing what to fund. There is no requirement that states prioritize highway spending. But cities and metropolitan regions need to demonstrate their importance in every state’s economy and show how alternative transportation is an important player in ensuring the viability of those places.

The dream of some livable city advocates that states be “abolished” is immature and completely unrealistic. State DOTs will continue to play the predominant role in determining how transportation spending is distributed in the United States, so we might as well work to get them on our side.

Image above: Pennsylvania’s Interstate 80, from Flickr user dougtone (cc)

Commuter Rail High-Speed Rail Intercity Rail Philadelphia Pittsburgh

Pennsylvania Releases State Rail Plan, Promotes Increased Investment in Intercity Systems

» 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