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Mass Movement: Waiting With Freighted Breath

Riding the rails to Pittsburgh's future

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Many East Enders dream of rail-based mass transit the way Left Behind readers dream of the Second Coming.

Unfortunately, light rail would cost anywhere from $2-3 billion, depending on the plan, according to general estimates in the Port Authority's East End Corridor Study. That's not as expensive as the proposed Mon-Fayette Expressway. But it ain't bus-cushion change, either.

 

Recently, local politicians and transit advocates have begun to consider a new-to-the-U.S. train technology that could put passengers on old freight lines.

 

On a map, the city's East End is crisscrossed by train tracks. Most noticeable are those that parallel the East Busway. Then there's the old B&O rails that run north and south, from 33rd Street in the Strip through the Neville Street tunnel and Panther Hollow to Hazelwood. (These tracks also continue north from the Strip paralleling Route 8.) Finally, there's the Allegheny Valley Railroad, running from Arnold to the Strip.

 

The idea of putting commuters on freight lines has been around for a few years but recently was embraced by mayoral candidates Bill Peduto and Michael Lamb over their rival Bob O'Connor's forward-to-the-past streetcar scheme. County Executive Dan Onorato included it in his transit proposals a few weeks ago. It's popular because it seems -- at first glance, at least -- like a relatively quick, inexpensive way to bring rail to the East End.

 

Such hopefulness is remarkable, given that the Port Authority lives on borrowed time, thanks to the refusal of the state legislature to negotiate a predictable funding stream for the state's transit agencies. But in an ideal, model-train world, passengers might board at Penn Station Downtown (officially called Union Station), perhaps feeling elegant beneath the 1903 stone arches. Trains would travel parallel to the East Busway, then enter the Neville Street tunnel in Bloomfield. They'd emerge in Oakland's Panther Hollow, near Carnegie Mellon University and the Carnegie Library. The next stops could be Greenfield and Hazelwood, which would include the shiny new Pittsburgh Technology Center.

 

Commuter rail on the 23-mile Allegheny Valley Railroad is another little transit dream, and one that has been discussed more extensively than the Panther Hollow idea, says Port Authority Chief Executive Paul Skoutelas.

 

Using existing railroad tracks saves money on land, track and expensive electric wiring. It's not a free ride, though: Stations need to be built, and the track itself might need improvement, Skoutelas says. A commuter is more demanding than a coal flat.

 

Traditionally, commuter trains on heavy rail are pulled by huge locomotives. That's impractical for city routes because heavy trains aren't made to stop frequently, says Colorado Railcar Sales Director Arthur Rader. New Diesel Multiple Units (DMUs), however, are self-propelled passenger cars that run on smaller diesel engines, similar to those in tractor-trailer trucks and city buses. They're strong enough to pull one or two additional cars. Colorado Railcar is the most famous American manufacturer, although Siemens and Bombardier also make DMUs.

 

Backers of DMUs say they're cheaper, easier to maintain and, because they're smaller, they can stop more frequently than heavy rail, although not as often as light rail, according to Rader. DMUs are being tested on a traditional commuter line in South Florida; more compact, urban DMU projects are underway in Raleigh-Durham and the Portland area.

 

The big trick is working out an arrangement with freight operators, says Joe Walsh, project director for Washington County Commuter Rail, a DMU project in the Portland suburbs. Unlike passenger trains, freight actually makes money. To make sure passenger cars weren't "bumped" or delayed by the moneymakers, it's important to negotiate a schedule giving each its time on the tracks.

 

Luckily, both the Allegheny Valley Railroad and the Panther Hollow tracks are under the control of Russell Peterson, who owns the Verona-based AVRR and leases the Panther Hollow tracks from CSX. Although no formal negotiations have taken place, Peterson has spoken with local officials about passenger service, say Skoutelas and city planner Pat Hassett. (Peterson did not return calls by press time.).

 

However, a key link is not under local control: The tracks along the East Busway are owned by Norfolk Southern, one of the nation's largest rail companies and a tougher nut to crack than a cooperative local line like the AVRR, Hassett says. Without permission to use these tracks, connecting to Downtown at Penn Station would be impossible. As for the Allegheny Valley tracks, those stop at 21st Street, leaving a Downtown gap of their own.

 

 

It would be fitting, though, if rail could be made to work somehow. Pittsburgh was made by railroads. It would be nice if rail could help build it again.

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