Tuesday, June 23, 2009

East Vs West

Pennsylvania is a funny state. I've heard it described as "Pittsburgh and Philadelphia with Alabama in the middle", a joke I'm sure that Harrisburg (and Alabama) hates. But the fact of the matter is there's a lot of nothing in between the two major Pennsylvania cities, except its capital. So it totally makes sense to have high-speed rail with few stops connecting these cities.

What do we have?

Philadelphia to Harrisburg

Harrisburg to Pittsburgh
  • 311 miles
  • 5+ hours by train
  • Train runs once per day
Why the difference? Historically, Pittsburgh's gotten the shaft?

At this point, Pennsylvania (and Pittsburgh) government has shown so little initiative that Congressman Altmire is instead hopping on board with Ohio's plans to connect Pittsburgh and Cleveland. And I don't blame him. As R2P writer, Jim Russell, has been espousing for years, we need to stop thinking of Cleveland as the enemy and instead build a mega-rust-belt-region to promote all of us. The first step to that collaboration might as well be a frequent and convenient train between Cleveland and Pittsburgh. If Cleveland can eventually have a smooth connection to Chicago via train and we're a hop-skip to Cleveland, you'd better believe that PennDOT and the PA governor would be banging on the door to let in a better train from Harrisburg.

In the meantime, I'd really like to see some local initiative on all public transportation fronts. Let's here Onorato and Ravenstahl step up and say that they will pursue city-wide light rail, regional commuter rail, and inter-city high speed rail. All of these options are vital for the region in terms of generating jobs, attractiveness to immigrants, and general congestion.


shadow said...

Symptom of history. electrification over the mountains was considered but never done. A competing (straighter) rail line was considered, but as it was a competitor to PA favorite son the Pennsylvania Railroad it didn't come to fruition; In some sense that right of way is now the turnpike.

The time for cheap public works passed before it became a priority, and now it's "too expensive" to even justify it getting done, it seems.

gwenix said...

The Pittsburgh->Cleveland route is part of a bigger plan to connect all of Ohio to itself and out (Cleveland/Columbus/Cinci/etc). If we connect to that network, you know Harrisburg will want to connect to us soon thereafter.

I'm for the Cleveland route. We're not an end point then, we're a starting point.

EdHeath said...

Perhaps it is time to have a public option for inter-City Bus service. Yeah, bus service, but an express that runs straight to Harrisburg (and for that matter, to Cleveland). If enough people use it, then we could talk about a high speed rail line.

illyrias said...

Are you aware of the Steel City Flyer which bills itself as a luxury non-stop bus between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh? It started as soon the old flight disappeared.

One of the great things about rail is that it has the potential to be faster than driving and always has less paperwork/headaches than flying. Also, you never have to worry about traffic. Almost every time I drive 80 I get caught in some heinous construction traffic. Trains also tend to go directly to downtown instead of some annoyingly located airport.

If you have great rail possibilities in place, the idea is that new opportunities will present themselves. New people will start using these methods. The people who use the buses on the North East corridor are very different than the people who take the train. Both can co-exist. But trains open up business and remote living opportunities that never existed before.

Richmond K. Turner said...

As someone who's lived in both cities -- and who grew up in that region that you and so many other elitists insist on referring to as "Alabama" -- I can perhaps shed some light on this.

The fact of the matter is that the rail line between Harrisburg and Philly is dedicated to passenger service. Nothing else runs on it, and for about half of it's length there are SEPTA commuter rails sitting right alongside the Amtrak ones. And not only is it dedicated to passenger service, it has also been upgraded over the past 5 years with concrete ties, full electrification (it used to be diesel only west of Downingtown), and smoother rails. The result is that it's now much faster than it used to be, and thus much more useful. I've taken it myself, several time, when I've been visiting my parents -- you know, those silly little bumpkins in "Alabama" -- and needed to get back to Philly for a quick work meeting. And it takes up from the doorstep of the State Capitol building (or near enough) directly into our offices in the University City part of Philly (or near enough), that meetings with state lawmakers are very easy to pull off. I love it.

In short, the old main line of the PA railroad kicks all kinds of booty, as long as you live close enough to use it. Lancaster is a great place to catch it, for example. But other places, like York (also known as "Little Taledega") have long since ripped out the tracks that used to feed into the system, and are now completely cut off from it.

The line that runs west from Harrisburg is an entirely different story. It's not electrified, and it carries freight, which is given priority over passenger traffic. And there are mountains between that part of "Alabama" and the bustling, cosmopolitan metropolis of Pittsburgh.

The other big difference, for most of the eastern part of that rail line, is the road network. If you are going Harrisburg-Philly, that's one thing. The turnpike is more or less a straight shot, although you will have to endure the horrors of the Schuylkill Expressway. But from just about every other part of that rail line, it's competing with U.S. Route 30, which becomes Lancaster Ave. as you get closer to Philadelphia. That's mostly a 2-lane road with endless traffic lights, which makes taking the train far more appealing.

Pittsburgh, on the other hand, has a nearly straight shot to Harrisburg with the existing Turnpike, and -- as bad as it can be -- the Parkway East is a cakewalk compared to the Schuylkill Expressway.

So, in order to get a rail line to Pittsburgh, you are going to have to conquer geography, the massive expense of building a new rail line from scratch, and the natural competition that is the nearly-direct PA turnpike. Those are all hard to beat.

But I'm just an Alabama-bred simpleton, so what do I know?

EdHeath said...

I was not aware of the Steel City Flyer, but it (along with RKT's comments) sort of proves my point. Right now the corridor between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg has evolved into one better suited for road traffic. The Steel City Flyer uses existing technology to conveniently transport people on the existing roads. But the cost of a ticket means that likely riders are either businessmen going to meetings or State government employees (especially elected officials). Otherwise it would be cheaper, more convenient and at least as fast to drive, assuming you have a car (as most of us do). Meanwhile, for high speed rail to Harrisburg to work, the train company (presumably Amtrak) would have to schedule around freight trains, and possibly upgrade the tracks. And I suspect ticket prices, unless subsidized, would be as much or more than flying.

Don’t get me wrong, I am a big advocate of public transportation, but it has to make economic sense. I would advocate a tax on fuel based partially on fuel economy, for example, to achieve the kind of transportation usage the government would like to see. That way, flying would get much more expensive, and buses would become cheaper. Trains would become the cheapest of all.