By Candy E. Price
Daily News Staff Writer
More than two years after Huntingdon County was at risk of losing its Amtrak stop for good, the local need for rail travel continues to grow.
“One of the things we know is that Amtrak does not have additional rolling stock available,” said Amy Wise, Huntingdon County Business and Industry (HCBI) executive director.
Wise is active in the group WesternPennsylvanians for Passenger Rail as well as the Keystone Transportation Funding Coalition.
Wise said Amtrak would be happy to add another passenger car, “but they can’t.”
“We have asked the question how many cars are safe for an Amtrak,” Wise said. “The response we always get is it doesn’t matter because we don’t have any.”
The need for more cars and infrastructure improvements come as U.S. Sen. Robert Casey Jr. (D) called on his Congressional counterparts to fund grants to Amtrak at the president’s fiscal year 2017 request of $1.9 billion. Casey’s office said the funding would go toward continuing the current service, as well as addressing capital investment needs.
“The other thing that (funding) could impact is they have started adding, in some communities, a railcar that allows for people to bring their bikes,” Wise said. “We really want that, especially Dirt Fest weekend.”
The concern, Wise said, is that Huntingdon County is a “small fish in a big pond when it comes to Amtrak.”
She said the Keystone East corridor — from Harrisburgto Philadelphia — “did receive a significant amount of upgrades,” and a study showed the Keystone West corridor — from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh — could stand to have the same upgrades completed.
An additional concern Wise voiced over the funding is the amount that would go into the “implementation of the positive train control requirements,” adding the safety upgrades are “absolutely necessary” and important.
Amtrak made a push to install positive train control (PTC) as part of a 2008 mandate and in the wake of the May 2015 derailment in Philadelphia that killed eight people and injured more than 200 railway passengers. Casey also cited the derailment in his push for funding.
With the local stop, Wise said an additional issue comes from too much interest.
“We know locally, you’ve got to book pretty far in advance to make sure you’re not one of the people standing,” she said. “They’re overbooking (trains) between Harrisburg and Philly.”
Timing of stops is also a county issue. Amtrak stops twice daily — once headed east around 11 a.m. and once headed west around 4:20 p.m.
“That’s one of the main reasons we would like to see additional stops per day,” Wise said.
Amtrak carries nearly 31 million passengers throughout the country and more than 1.4 million in the Keystone Corridor. Amtrak employs more than 2,600 people in Pennsylvania and spends more than $200 million a year on procurement contracts in the state.
Mark Spada from Western Pennsylvanians for Passenger Rail said last year the Keystone West carried 231,720 passengers.
“That is a very good number for a single daily train and, in fact, the (train), has several years had among highest capacity numbers any route on the Amtrak based upon the of available seats that actually filled,” Spada “The train is heavily used and, in the case of Huntingdon, it is the only means of public transportation into and out of the town. For the rest of western PA, that holds true in terms of there being very few means of public access.”
Candy can be reached at email@example.com.