HUNTINGDON - A passing freight train drowned out blaring patriotic music and forced men to grab their hats Friday as more than 100 people rallied at Huntingdon's tiny Amtrak station.
With signs that read, "Keep Huntingdon on the map" and "The little town that could," the cluster of protesters - including college students, grandparents and politicians - spent an hour in near-freezing temperatures to fight for the region's last remaining passenger rail route.
"This really is our only public transportation," state Rep. Mike Fleck, R-Huntingdon, said at a podium near the small metal structure that serves as the borough's passenger station. "We don't want this to be the missing link."
The western Pennsylvania Amtrak route, running from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg including stops in Altoona, Tyrone, Huntingdon and Lewistown is threatened by a coming October transfer to state financial control. Despite a $5.7 million price tag PennDOT would face, state Rep. Dick Hess, R-Bedford - the state House Transportation Committee chairman - vowed Friday to keep the route in existence.
"It's something we have to have, not just for the people but for the economy," Hess told the cheering crowd.
Hess offered hope to those fighting for the rail segment. He's been in talks with PennDOT Secretary Barry Schoch, he said, and no one involved considers closing the line a serious option.
Speakers and attendees offered a litany of arguments for preserving Amtrak's Pennsylvanian route: Seniors use it to visit relatives; students ride it to and from school; and hospital patients take it to Pittsburgh for treatment.
When an inmate's time is up at the State Correctional Institution at Huntingdon, corrections officers drive him less than two miles to the Amtrak station and send him on his way, Borough Mayor Dee Dee Brown said.
The alternative if the line closes? Officers would drive an hour to State College, buy a transit ticket and quickly make a second trip to leave the newly freed convict on a bus.
"The train means a lot for us," said Mingwei Song, a Juniata College student from Chengdu, China. "How can our parents come here and participate in our graduation? It's four years, and it's the only time they will come to America."
Without a train, Song said, the county would be all but severed from international airline hubs like Pittsburgh and New York.
Gabriella Ricciardi, a senior Juniata College museum studies major from New York, said she wouldn't have been allowed to attend school in Huntingdon if not for the train home.
"Three years on this train. I need it," she said.
Speaking after the rally, Hess said he plans to schedule a hearing in Harrisburg to discuss PennDOT's options. Under a 2008 federal law, Amtrak must transfer its taxpayer subsidy for shorter lines, like the Pennsylvanian, to state control.
The $5.7 million subsidy - roughly $27 per passenger under current use - is unacceptably high, Hess said. Negotiations are under way with Amtrak officials to reduce the number, though he didn't indicate how the subsidy price could be cut.
There was little question Friday that the line gets its share of riders. After the Pennsylvanian roared to a stop, its horn sounding and the crowd cheering, keynote speaker Michael Alexander of Western Pennsylvanians for Passenger Rail stepped off and proudly announced that the train was sold out.
Alexander balked at the suggestion that $5.7 million is a prohibitively large expense. Even relatively small highway projects and bridge installations often cost more, he said.
He painted a dark picture of a future without the western Pennsylvania line: Small mountain communities would languish, their residents cut off from major cities, while trains continued to buzz all day at 125 mph between Harrisburg to Philadelphia, he said.
"(Towns) will wither away. Younger people will leave," Alexander said.
"If the train is gone in October, we have to assume it will be gone for good," he said. "We will never see a passenger train pass through Huntingdon again."