Predictable Praise for State Subsidy of AMTRAK

Proponents of all things paid for by someone else are effusive in their praise of the Governor’s agreement to pay $3.8 million to keep the once a day Pittsburgh to Harrisburg service operating. One editorialist was atwitter about how the $40 one way price is such bargain compared to the cost of driving a car and paying turnpike tolls. Never mind that almost $40 in taxpayer funds are required to subsidize that trip. Also ignored is the fact that the MegaBus service which take two hours less for the journey and offers three trips a day costs only $16 for a one way ticket. And guess what. No taxpayer subsidy is required.

The Governor’s deal sounds great to those who prefer riding trains. So why not ask the riders on the train to pay higher ticket prices to cover the true cost? Why can we not let go of the notion that just because some people like being subsidized, it is not mandatory that taxpayers have their pockets picked endlessly to accommodate their wishes?

Here’s a reasonable challenge for all the pundits who have pushed for the state subsidy and are now gleeful that the Governor has acquiesced. Push and cajole to get more passengers to use the Pennsylvanian in order to lower the per rider subsidy. If the decades’ long trend in declining passenger count continues, this move by the Governor will look foolish as the per passenger subsidy increases.

Maybe the big supporters of subsidized passenger service would be willing to buy up blocks of tickets to help defray the cost to taxpayers. Probably when pigs fly.

Should the State Subsidize Pittsburgh to Harrisburg Train Service?

AMTRAK has told Pennsylvania that the Pittsburgh to Harrisburg route-known as the Pennsylvanian-would likely be suspended unless the state comes up with the $5.7 million needed to cover the subsidy now being covered by money from the Federal government. This route has one train a day inbound to Pittsburgh and one train outbound from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg with continuing service to New York City. The inbound train arrives Pittsburgh at 8:05 PM having left New York at 10:52 AM and Harrisburg at 2:36 PM. Outbound from Pittsburgh departs at 7:30 AM and arrives Harrisburg at 12:55 PM and New York at 4:50 PM.

For fiscal year 2012, there were 129,372 combined boardings and disembarkings at the Pittsburgh station for the Pennsylvanian train and the Capitol Ltd. service that goes on west to Chicago by way of Cleveland and east to Washington DC. The Capitol Ltd service is also one train per day in each direction leaving for Chicago at midnight and DC at 4:50 AM. Ridership on the Capitol Ltd and Pennsylvanian are very nearly the same, posting just over 100,000 passengers each in the first six months of fiscal 2012. The Pittsburgh passenger count has fallen substantially since 2008 when it was well over 140,000. In any case, even if the majority of passengers at the Pittsburgh station are from the Pennsylvanian, the number of passengers is almost certainly fewer than 100,000 per year or 270 people per day-probably about evenly divided between boardings and disembarkings.

Further, the passenger count at the Altoona station, the busiest between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg, has fallen from 35,850 in 1998 to 26,798 in 2012, a drop of 25 percent. Thus, the recent trend of usage of the Pennsylvanian is clearly down. The key question "is the trend reversible?" If it is not, should the state be putting money into a train route that will require increasing subsidies year after year as the gap between revenues and costs widens?

The single trip each way is obviously a weak selling point. The departure and arrival times in Pittsburgh are not really the most convenient for many potential passengers. Then too, the five and half hour travel time to Harrisburg is off putting considering the alternatives. Granted the trip from Altoona to Harrisburg is shorter and if the final destination is Philadelphia or New York the trip times are much more comparable to travel by car or bus. But that being the case, why is the passenger count at Altoona in such decline?

Passengers going from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg will pay $40 for the trip. Passengers traveling by MegaBus from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg pay $14 or $16 depending on which of the three daily departure times they choose. The MegaBus trip is a three and half to four hour journey with no stops. Thus, the advent of the MegaBus has created major competition for the train in terms of convenience, travel time and cost.

And without question, for most people making the trip to Harrisburg, especially people on business, getting to the Harrisburg train station is just the start of the excursion. If they want to go to a meeting in Swatara or other neighboring community, they will need transportation. Unless someone is there to provide transportation, it will mean getting a cab or renting a car. Either would represent considerable extra expenditure of money and time. Moreover, the business person going to New York would not arrive until very late in the afternoon and would have missed most of the work day, meaning a night in a hotel. Whereas a flight leaving Pittsburgh at 7:30 AM would have the person in NYC in time to get in several hours of meetings or sales calls and still catch a late afternoon or early evening flight home.

In short, business travelers are unlikely to ever make up a big part of the Pennsylvanian’s passengers. And non-business travelers seeking to save time and money now have a much better alterative in MegaBus.

For the state to ante up the $5.7 million, which is about half the estimated cost of running the Pennsylvanian service, it will have to justify the expenditure of funds on other than economic considerations. Indeed, the state ought to survey the ridership to ascertain whether subsidizing half the cost of the trip is warranted. Do they have alternatives, too poor to travel any other way, or have no bus service? Is there a sizable group of people who ride the train to take advantage of the subsidy but who could easily afford to drive from Johnstown or Altoona?

The only other reason to keep the line going would be to have it available and in working condition against the possibility of a major long term highway outage or restriction. Or perhaps Turnpike tolls will get so high people will abandon the Turnpike in favor of a train ride.