Passenger trains could be streaking across Warren County by 2028 if not sooner, a study released last week by Amtrak concluded.
Amtrak has proposed restoring passenger service between New York City and Scranton, Pennsylvania. The plan would revive the long-dormant Lackawanna Cutoff – that ubiquitous former railroad line that looms more than 100 feet in some places over Frelinghuysen, Blairstown and Knowlton.
The plan calls for three trains in each direction, with a running time just under two hours from Scranton.
The proposed service would utilize upgraded existing tracks in Pennsylvania between Scranton and the Delaware Water Gap, 20 miles of restored tracks on the Lackawanna Cutoff between the Gap and Andover, and existing tracks owned and operated by New Jersey.
Transit and Amtrak between Andover and New York City.
The service would have limited stops, one of them being in Blairstown. A trip to midtown Manhattan, according to the report, would take about one hour and 15 minutes. Stops are also proposed for East Stroudsburg and Mount Pocono on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River.
The two-year study was commissioned by the National Railroad Passenger Corp., better known as Amtrak, and the Pennsylvania Northeast Regional Railroad Authority mostly focused on the costs and benefits on the Keystone State portion of the line.
“Amtrak’s study confirms what the people of Northeastern Pennsylvania have known for years: restoring passenger rail between Scranton and New York will boost our economy and help people travel for business, tourism, family and more,” said U.S. Senator Bob Casey (D-PA).
“This route would have relatively low infrastructure costs and a high expected ridership. I have long advocated to expand passenger rail back into Northeastern PA and thanks to the infrastructure law, we are closer than ever to getting it done,” said Casey.
Trains traveling at speeds up to 110 mph on the Lackawanna Cutoff segment would transport 380,000 riders in its first year, rising to 470,000 after three years, according to Amtrak.
Amtrak claimed the regions surrounding the restored service would see up to $84 million each year in economic activity. The study also said the service would include $20 million in user benefits such as decreased travel time.
The costs of upgrading the tracks to federal standards for passenger trains would be between $99 million and $176 million. That estimate, however, is only for the Pennsylvania portion of the line and does not include the costs associated with restoration of the cutoff and other improvements on the New Jersey portion from the Delaware Water Gap to Andover. There, NJ Transit is currently restoring tracks to connect to New York.
The study does not indicate fares, but it assumes ridership won’t cover all operating costs, some of which New Jersey and Pennsylvania would have to cover. The study estimates annual revenues at about $13.3 million and operating costs at more than $19.1 million.
That last passenger train to operate on the proposed route ran in January of 1970, when the Erie-Lackawanna Railroad, at that time the owner of the line, ended all long-distance passenger service. The last freight train ran over the New Jersey portion in 1979.
The tracks survived on the Pennsylvania side and still host numerous freight trains, although those tracks would need to be upgraded.
A number of bureaucratic steps lie ahead for the proposed service. Amtrak must apply to the U.S. Department of Transportation for designation in the Federal Corridor Identification and Development Program, which would provide federal seed money to get the project started.
There are also many environmental and engineering plans that must be completed as well as agreements with numerous other local, state and federal governments and agencies including the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, PNRRA, Amtrak, New Jersey Department of Transportation, NJ Transit and the National Park Service.
Restoration of rail service on this and other lines has been proposed many times during the past decade, but it has always run into the same stop: money. With this proposal, however, availability of funding would not likely be a major impediment.
Under the bi-partisan 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, state and local governments can apply for matching federal funds for planning, engineering, construction and operation of new Amtrak intercity rail corridors.
The federal government could then provide up to 80% of project funding for capital costs and a portion of the operating costs, with Amtrak as operating partner, for up to six years of operation, according to Amtrak. The remaining capital and operating funding are required to come from non-federal sources.
Joe Phalon, Contributing Writer
Joe was lured out of retirement by the opportunity to be a part of the Ridge View Echo. During a decades-long career in publishing and journalism, he has covered government on many levels from local school boards to the United States Supreme Court.
Along the way, Joe has worked at American Lawyer Magazine, The National Law Journal and The Record among other publications, and as the Press Officer of Columbia Law School. His work has been recognized with several first place awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the New Jersey Press Association.
Being part of the Ridge View Echo brings Joe back to his roots and the kind of news coverage he loves: Telling the stories of people and local communities as well as keeping an eye on how their money is spent by their government officials.
Joe lives in Blairstown with his wife Rose, the founder of Quilting for a Cause, and their two wiener dogs. He is an artist in his spare time.