Amtrak, local rail authority sign deal to study NYC train

·4 min read

Jul. 21—The regional railroad authority signed a deal Tuesday with Amtrak for a detailed study on bringing the nation's passenger rail service to connect Scranton and New York City.

The Pennsylvania Northeast Regional Railroad Authority, which announced the deal Tuesday, will pick up the $400,000 cost of the study, which is expected to take Amtrak a year to carry out.

The announcement marked another in a flurry of developments since November that have given longtime advocates a glimmer of hope of restoring a service that ended Jan. 5, 1970.

Efforts to reach an Amtrak spokeswoman were unsuccessful.

Authority executive director Larry Malski said what happens next depends on Congress passing a bill to pay for upgrading the nation's roads, bridges and other infrastructure — including tens of billions of dollars for expanding Amtrak's service.

As Amtrak and the authority signed the deal, congressional machinations continued on infrastructure, a major piece of President Joe Biden's legislative agenda. Amtrak has proposed more than 30 new passenger rail corridors to expand service, Malski said.

"If funding comes out for all of these corridors, that would be wonderful," he said. "Is that going to happen? I have no idea. Will funding come out for half of these corridors or some other scenario like that? Anything's possible. We're really just gonna have to wait and see what level of funding we get. But we felt it important to reach out to them on their good faith proposal and, you know, at least show our interest that's been here for all these years ... It's really good news. Another step."

Amtrak officially proposed new corridors to Scranton, Allentown and other places nationwide in late March. About a month later, Biden, a Scranton native, celebrated Amtrak's 50th anniversary in Philadelphia by highlighting the potential expansion of service to the Electric City and elsewhere.

After Amtrak officially released its expansion map, Malski contacted the agency to ask about next steps. The agreement to study the Scranton service grew out of that, he said.

Amtrak will provide professional services to study restoring the service, including ridership and revenue forecasts, equipment, stations and other needs.

Significantly, Malski and other train advocates said, Amtrak proposed the service and will study it.

"This represents the first time Amtrak is formally involved in this process, which is really significant," said Tyler Kusma, a founder of the Scranton Rail Restoration Coalition, an advocacy group. "This project overall is significant, because, you know, it connects us to the Amtrak network. It's useful for commuters. It's useful for college students. It's useful for tourists."

Kusma, Malski, U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright and other advocates say ridership should turn out larger than previous studies show because estimates won't be limited to commuters between Scranton and New York City. Unlike a previously proposed New Jersey Transit service, Malski pointed out the train would run into Penn Station in New York City instead of only to Hoboken, New Jersey.

A 2006 New Jersey Transit study pegged the cost of restoring the service at $551 million, but also estimated only 3,530 daily weekday riders, including just 40 from Scranton. Advocates always felt that counted only commuters and overlooked leisure travelers.

A 2020 study organized by Cartwright estimated the cost much lower, $288.9 million. The congressman points to data showing 25,000 to 30,000 people commuting daily between the Poconos and northern New Jersey and New York City.

Beyond that, he said Tuesday, the pandemic has pushed many former New York and New Jersey residents to move to the Poconos, creating a potential new pool of riders.

"I'll be very interested to see how the Amtrak ridership stuff comes out," he said.

Coinciding with the Amtrak agreement announcement, Cartwright, D-8, Moosic, announced a House congressional caucus to promote to regional collaboration on the railroad restoration. The caucus includes Rep. Susan Wild, D-7, Lehigh County, and representatives Josh Gottheimer and Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey.

Unlike many other proposed routes, government entities — in this case, the railroad authority and New Jersey Transit — control the entire 133-miles of railroad right-of-way to Hoboken with Amtrak owning the tracks into Penn Station, Malski said. That heartens local advocates.

The main construction obstacles remain upgrades to two major bridges and reinstalling the rest of the track missing on the famed 28.45-mile Lackawanna Cutoff in New Jersey between a Delaware River bridge and Andover, New Jersey. New Jersey Transit has restored about 4.25 miles on 7.3 miles of cutoff between Andover and Port Morris, where its current service ends.

The agency is developing a contract to repair a tunnel on the stretch. To date, most of the talk has centered on New Jersey Transit running a commuter train along the route, but Amtrak's recent interest has overshadowed that.

Contact the writer: bkrawczeniuk@timesshamrock.com; 570-348-9147; @BorysBlogTT on Twitter.

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