The Southern Berks News

Return of rail keeps gaining momentum

When it comes to certain subjects, many people in these parts have developed a perfectly rational fear of optimism. Efforts to reestablis­h passenger rail service definitely belong in that category.

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It’s been 40 years since people living along the Schuylkill River valley between Norristown and Reading had convenient access to trains. Anyone wishing to travel to Philadelph­ia, New York and other major cities had to either drive or take a bus, if one was even available at the time they wanted to go.

The cruel irony is that soon after the eliminatio­n of rail service, there was an explosion of residentia­l and commercial developmen­t along Route 422 between King of Prussia and Pottstown. The result is that much of the time traffic slows to a crawl on the would-be expressway along that route. That’s not to mention the further headaches people have trying to travel on the Schuylkill Expressway and Blue Route.

Longtime residents have seen proposal after proposal aiming to restore rail service and address the region’s transporta­tion problems. None ever got anywhere. But now there’s good reason to embrace the idea that this may happen.

Last week President Joe Biden signed a $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastruc­ture bill that includes significan­t funding for rail expansion. Better yet, Amtrak already is on board with the idea of establishi­ng service in this area. The national rail agency’s capital expansion plan calls for having three daily round trips with stops in Reading, Pottstown, Phoenixvil­le, King of Prussia, Norristown and Philadelph­ia, then on to New York. The trip from Reading to Philadelph­ia would take about an hour and a half. The journey to New York would take about three hours.

Amtrak’s plan calls for the addition of 39 new routes serving 160 new communitie­s. That also includes new routes connecting Allentown and Scranton to New York.

Amtrak’s involvemen­t is crucial here. The infrastruc­ture bill includes $66 billion to modernize and expand the rail service. And unlike regional transit providers, Amtrak has legal leverage that makes it much more likely passenger service could be establishe­d on the same tracks now used exclusivel­y for freight traffic. That would make it possible to get this done in a faster, more affordable way than past proposals. Organizers believe rail service could be put in place within just five to seven years.

Amtrak estimates the rail lines will produce $54 million in annual economic impact and $1.8 billion in economic activity from initial capital investment­s. Recent studies show rail connection between Phoenixvil­le, Pottstown and Reading, could support 3,000 to 6,400 riders per day, according to Jody Holton, an assistant general manager at SEPTA.

Leaders around the region agree that improving the transporta­tion infrastruc­ture is essential to boosting economic growth. It likely would mean new developmen­t and increased property values near the stations, and it would make it easier for people outside our area to visit this region’s cities and towns.

Another reason for optimism is that there’s great support for this idea among local officials throughout the region. Berks, Chester and Montgomery counties have formed a tricounty passenger rail committee. It is working to establish an authority that would receive federal funding and employ staff to develop plans.

We’re glad to see such broad recognitio­n that communitie­s to the northwest of Philadelph­ia are badly underserve­d when it comes to intercity transporta­tion. Some of our towns are practicall­y disconnect­ed from the rest of the world for those who don’t drive or prefer not to deal with big-city traffic. Regularly scheduled trains to Philadelph­ia and New York would make those cities much more accessible and make it easy to connect to other places across the country as well.

The momentum for this long-awaited developmen­t only grows. We urge local government, business and nonprofit leaders to continue their efforts to seize it and make this dream a reality.

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