All aboard

LEWISTOWN – Mere hours after a sizeable crowd gathered at the Lewistown Train Station on Thursday in support of keeping passenger railroad service from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and Amtrak agreed to do just that.

Gov. Tom Corbett announced Thursday that a revised agreement with Amtrak calls for the state to pay $3.8 million a year to maintain service of the “Pennsylvanian” line. That’s substantially less than initial estimates of $6.5 million a year.

“Amtrak is pleased to have reached an agreement with our partners in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to preserve the Pennsylvanian, servicing communities between Pittsburgh, Harrisburg and Philadelphia with connections to New York,” Amtrak president and CEO Joe Boardman said in a press release. “This is an exciting day for the people of Pennsylvania, and I want to thank Governor Corbett and Secretary (of Transportation Barry) Schoch for working with us to continue this important service.”

A change in federal law starting this October had put the line in jeopardy because the federal government said it would no longer provide funding.

State Rep. Kerry Benninghoff, R-Bellefonte, was among those who spoke at the rally Thursday. Benninghoff also spoke on behalf of state Reps. Adam Harris, R-Mifflintown, and Mike Fleck, R-Huntingdon, who Benninghoff said were on the floor of the state House debating the proposal to privatize the state liquor stores.

Benninghoff said train service is a “vital cog in the transportation system,” worthy of keeping in service.

State Sen. Jake Corman, R-Bellefonte, said he was confident the state will be able to maintain the train service and that he rode the “Pennsylvanian” rail line when he was in college and he used the Lewistown station.

The Great American Stations, an organization that maintains a database of information regarding train stations, recorded more than 8,000 passengers who used the Lewistown station during fiscal year 2012, which brought in more than $300,000 in ticket revenue.

Kay Hamilton, President and CEO of Lewistown Hospital, was another supporter who spoke at the rally. Hamilton said she uses the train to visit Pittsburgh and New York City on occasion.

Mifflin County Commissioner Kevin Kodish said the rail line provides millions of Pennsylvanians with access to a vital transportation link that connects them to jobs, healthcare, educational opportunities and tourist venues – all while producing energy savings, reducing highway traffic accidents and our reliance on foreign fuels, as well as the carbon footprint otherwise made by personal passenger vehicles.

“Although the most populous city in Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, is not threatened with the loss of its Amtrak service connection to the commonwealth’s capital city – nor should it be – it is important to note that a vast amount of Pennsylvanians live in small towns, cities and rural municipalities at points west of Harrisburg,” Kodish said.

Kodish said demand for this service connecting Lewistown has shown some growth, up 1.4 percent, between 2011 and 2012. This uptick is likely to continue as the cost at the gas pump continues to rise, with no promise of reversing that trend anytime soon.

“As Pennsylvania and the nation are making strides to get people back to work, now is not the time to cut workers and job seekers from a possible transportation link to places of employment,” Kodish said.

“Without question, employers making location decisions rank transportation infrastructure high on their list of selection criteria – for moving both goods to market and for moving workers to jobs. The elimination of this Amtrak line sends a dangerous and damaging message to employers and businesses that Pennsylvania doesn’t see much value in maintaining – let alone expanding – its transportation infrastructure. This flies in the face of national public policy to advance mass transportation options and to rebuild America’s transportation infrastructure,” he added.

Mark Spada from Western Pennsylvanians for Passenger Rail made the trip all the way from Pittsburgh to speak at the rally. Spada said people are traveling by train in record numbers, and if the Pennsylvanian would ever be shut down, it will not likely return.

Spada said this isn’t just an issue for Harrisburg and Pittsburgh, it’s also about all the stations in between where 40 percent of Amtrak riders come from on the Pennsylvanian line.

Lewistown Mayor Deb Bargo and Huntingdon Mayor Dee Dee Brown also spoke at the rally. Just a few short hours later, Bargo said she was ecstatic when she received word that an agreement to keep the rail line open had been reached.

“I was thrilled when I heard the news this afternoon,” Bargo said. “The wonderful stories about riding this train from the folks that attended the rally today, and now knowing that future riders will have that same opportunity makes the victory even sweeter.”

The “Pennsylvanian” line provides one train a day in each direction between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg. Through service continues to and from Philadelphia and New York City.

The western Pennsylvania service, which the state restored in the early 1980s, includes stops at stations in Lewistown, Huntingdon, Altoona, Johnstown and Greensburg.

The administration says money to continue the service is covered by Corbett’s pending transportation funding plan.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.