January 2021 – An Update
The Berks Alliance Study: Late in 2019, the Berks Alliance contracted with Transportation Economics & Management Services (TEMS) to conduct a feasibility study for restoring passenger rail service between Berks County and Philadelphia. TEMS completed its study in the summer of 2020. The study indicated that there was sufficient capacity along the corridor to absorb the service without interfering with freight transportation and that upgrades along the corridor would allow trains to move at 79 mph, higher than earlier studies had indicated. The TEMS study suggested that two types of service could be considered: commuter service to Philadelphia and intercity service through Philadelphia to the Northeast Rail Corridor. The service would require the use of dual energy locomotives. The plan proposed stops in Reading, Pottstown, Royersford, and Phoenixville, with the potential of adding stops in Wyomissing and/or Birdsboro. TEMS estimated that the capital cost for restoring service would be $356 million which is substantially less than earlier studies that had predicted costs approaching $2 billion. These capital costs could be reduced by purchasing and Accela train stock. It assumes a reimbursement to Norfolk-Southern and that each of the communities hosting a station would bear the cost of station improvements. The study suggested that there was sufficient capacity to support the service and that the intercity model might be able to operate without subsidy. Restoration of passenger train service would create significant environmental and economic benefits along the corridor. It would reduce vehicle travel along the corridor by five percent, increase property values by over $1 billion, create over 28,000 person years of jobs and dramatically increase tax revenues.
Phoenixville Task Force: The leaders of the Berks County initiative are collaborating with a group in Phoenixville, the Mayor’s Task Force, which is working to restore passenger service to that community. Phoenixville is one of the stations identified along the proposed corridor.
State Rail Plan: The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, in compliance with a federal government requirement, is to develop and update a Rail Plan. PennDOT is in the process of finalizing that report. To be eligible for federal support, projects must be included in the state plan as an active plan. PennDOT’s 2020 draft plan included identification of the Berks Alliance plan, which it listed as a Vision not an active plan. The study also referenced a separate study launched by PennDOT to explore the restoration of passenger service to Berks County.
PennDOT Study: PennDOT released its study in January 2021. While it suggested that there would be sufficient ridership along the corridor to warrant restoration (in fact the PennDOT plan suggests even higher ridership levels), the PennDOT plan had several significant differences. This study did not include a corridor capacity analysis. Rather it assumes the construction of a third rail line to not disrupt freight service. It also assumed a commuter service operated by SEPTA. The Berks Alliance plan assumed that there could be several operator options that could be explored. The total capital costs long identified in the PennDOT report could approach $818 million most of which were the cost of installing the third rail line, and significant upgrades to all the proposed stations along the corridor. The PennDOT report identified 6 potential stations, adding Birdsboro and Valley Forge. Because the PennDOT study used the timetable for passenger service in 1981 and added these two stations, it’s estimates of travel time would be longer than the schedule in the Berks Alliance report which proposes the use of equipment which can move more quickly.
Municipal Authority: Restoration of passenger rail service assumes the creation of a tri-county municipal authority. Christian Leinbach, Chair of the Berks County Commissioners, has reached out to his counterparts in Montgomery County, Val Arkoosh, and Chester County, Marian Moskowitz, to begin those discussions.
Conversations and Outreach: The following efforts to garner support for restoration of passenger rail service are ongoing:
- A meeting has been scheduled with PennDOT and Norfolk-Southern to discuss the two plans and the options moving forward.
- A meeting has been scheduled with SEPTA to discuss the two plans.
- Informal discussions have occurred with AMTRAK.
- Information has been shared with several members of Congress, in anticipation of additional federal funding that might be available from the federal government.
- Information has been shared with state legislators about the two plans: and
- In addition to the county officials, local government officials have also been actively engaged in discussions about the project.
Next Steps: The key next steps in the process are:
- Creation of the Municipal Authority to develop the network. A nine (9) person committee is being formed to take up initial planning for the Authority. Target date: Summer 2021
- Discussions and agreements with Norfolk-Southern about access to their rail corridor and an internal analysis by Norfolk-Southern to assess rail line capacity and infrastructure requirements. Target Date: Conclude Negotiations Summer 2021. Complete Study fourth quarter 2021.
- A study to determine the impact of the rail service on the environment. Target Date: First Quarter 2022.:
- Inclusion of restoration of passenger rail service between Berks County and Philadelphia in the state rail plan. Target Date: End of 2021.
- Inclusion of this plan in proposed federal legislation to provide financial incentives for passenger rail service; and
- Encouraging advocates for the project to reach out to state, local and federal officials indicating their support.