PITTSTON TWP. — Wikes-Barre officials asked the Lackawanna/Luzerne Metropolitan Planning Organization this week to consider a feasibility study to restore intercity passenger rail service from Wilkes-Barre to Philadelphia.

Members of the organization who attended the meeting at the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport said there would be a number of obstacles to the proposal, including a lack of funds to pay for a study.

Wilkes-Barre director of operations Butch Frati presented a letter from Mayor Tony George and Controller Darren Snyder stating Amazon’s criteria for its new headquarters “shows how important rail transportation is in the decision-making process for major economic development site locations.”

An Intercity Passenger Rail Study conducted by the Pennsylvania Transportation Authority Committee in 2019 identified three corridors for access to Philadelphia: Harrisburg, Reading-Pottstown and Lehigh Valley. A feasibility study would determine which corridor would be best to restore passenger rail service from Wilkes-Barre to Philadelphia.

Lackawanna County Transportation Planning Manager Steve Pitoniak said the Lackawanna/Luzerne Metropolitan Planning Organization has very limited funding and the request should probably go through the state Department of Transportation.

“It never appeared on any long-range plan. That would be another issue to get it on a long-range plan which we would be looking to update next year,” Pitoniak said. “There are a lot of steps that have to be done before we could even get to talking about funding a study.”

Pitoniak added there was a study done on restoring passenger rail service from Wilkes-Barre to Philadelphia in the 1980s and there were issues back then.

“Some of the right-of-way had been abandoned,” he said. “Some of the right-of-way had been sold off.”

Scranton engineer John Pocius said the Wilkes-Barre corridor also was not in a previous study done last year about extending rail service to various points in Pennsylvania.

“A very successful one is from Philadelphia to Harrisburg,” Pocius said. “One of the biggest ones was going from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh, but it faced a lot of concerns because of rights-of-ways being sold and abandoned.”

Restoring passenger rail service from Wilkes-Barre to Philadelphia would involve using some of the Reading Blue Mountain & Northern Railroad.

“Obviously, we connect some of the dots between the locations,” said Tyler Glass, executive vice president of operations for the Reading & Northern Railroad. “If there is a study, we’d be happy to work with you folks on such a study.”

Glass said the Reading Blue Mountain & Northern Railroad does not go into Philadelphia, however.

Most of the rail lines in that area are owned by Norfolk Southern and it is strictly a freight rail system.

Alan Baranski, vice president of the transportation planning services division for the Northeastern Pennsylvania Alliance, said most freight operators do not want passenger rail.

“Freight is a revenue generator. Freight is free enterprise,” he said. “With passenger rail, you’re getting into public transit dollars.”

The decision about whether or not rail service should be re-established should be all about whether or not there is demand for the service, Baranski said.

“You would have to establish there is demand for such ridership as far as where people want to go and how they want to get there,” he said. “With the establishment of any kind of new mode, it’s very expensive and you really have to take a hard look at the demand.”

— (The Citizens Voice via AP)

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