It's hard to imagine Altoona without passenger rail service. After all, that's a railroad town - still home to one of the biggest locomotive repair shops in the country and once the biggest in the world.
And yet, after news broke earlier this week that if a funding issue goes unresolved before an October deadline, the Pennsylvanian - the daily train from Pittsburgh to New York and back with stops in Lewistown, as well as Altoona - might no longer exist.
Under the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008, passenger rail routes less than 750 miles must soon follow a uniform funding system. That means PennDOT will have to cover the full $5.7-million annual subsidy for Amtrak's daily Pittsburgh-to-Harrisburg route, which makes stops in Altoona, Johnstown, Tyrone, Huntingdon and Lewistown.
Once paid for entirely with federal funds, the shift would mean a new expense for the state, PennDOT spokeswoman Erin Waters-Trasatt said.
And it's not like Harrisburg - witness the sudden and poorly-executed announcement of the planned closure of the State Correctional Institution at Cresson - is looking to spend money on new projects.
None of us were alive the last time train service wasn't available in Altoona. In fact, 100 years ago, some 60 passenger trains rolled through the city each day as Altoona was a gateway to the west.
We're now down to two departures - east, departing at 10:01 a.m., west departing at 5:06 p.m.
Though that's not overly convenient and certainly takes longer than driving in a car, riding the train is relaxing and offers an alternative to the automobile, especially in bad weather and especially for seniors who may be traveling alone.
Plus the service is still used here.
According to Amtrak, in the fiscal year 2012, 26,978 people entered or exited Amtrak trains in Altoona - about 75 passengers per day - as well as 3,108 in Tyrone and 5,837 in Huntingdon.
The loss of the route would also eliminate the experience of riding a train around the famous Horseshoe Curve, a U.S. National Landmark - which, along with the railroad industry, helped put Altoona on the map.
We realize our country is in a budget crunch, and we hope some middle ground - or, in this case - middle track, can be reached. Waters-Trasatt said PennDOT and Amtrak are still discussing multiple scenarios, including extending the October deadline, and the service could continue beyond October.
Let's hope so.
Without train service, Altoona would not only lose a transportation option but part of its identity as well.
- Altoona Mirror