The One Big Problem With Bringing Amtrak to City Hall

Amtrak service through the Commuter Tunnel sounds like a great idea. But there’s this little engineering issue …

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“Ladies and gentlemen, the next station stop for this train is City Hall station in Philadelphia. Please check your seat and make sure you have all personal belongings with you as you leave the train. Thank you for riding Amtrak.”

At least one Philadelphian would love to hear this announcement. In an essay in the Philadelphia Business Journal yesterday, Bob Previdi, former spokesperson for City Council member Anna Verna, noted that running Amtrak trains through the heart of the city, stopping at a renamed Suburban Station on the way to New York, would offer all sorts of benefits: increased convenience for Amtrak travelers, increased property values for homes and offices now closer to intercity rail service, and even luring New Yorkers to Philly to live, as their commutes and their tax bills would both shrink.




There's a lot that's appealing about this idea. 30th Street Station, grand though it is, is across the river from the heart of the city, and Previdi is far from the only person who would love to see restored the city center access that was lost when Broad Street Station was closed in 1952. And he is right to note that this city, like London, has already made a major investment in easy rail access in the form of the Commuter Tunnel.

But in saying that the only thing standing in the way of operating Amtrak service through the Commuter Tunnel is the political will to bring the passenger and freight railroads together to implement the through-tunnel service, he is ignoring one big fact on the ground.

The problem with the proposal is this: Once Amtrak trains would exit the Commuter Tunnel's east portal, there would be no way for them to get back to the tracks heading to New York Penn Station. That's because the tracks feeding the tunnel from the north belonged to the Reading Railroad, and the Reading had no physical connections to its crosstown rival, the Pennsylvania.

The Reading did operate its own Philadelphia-New York trains, to be sure. They followed the route of what's now SEPTA's West Trenton Line and used the Jersey Central to reach a terminal in Jersey City, where passengers could catch ferries to Lower Manhattan.

The Jersey Central and the Jersey City train station are both gone. And even if a new terminal were built there, it would simply trade inconvenience in New York for inconvenience in Philadelphia.

A new, high-speed connection would have to be built to allow Amtrak Northeast Regional trains to run between Washington and New York via "Philadelphia City Hall." And that would cost some money and require some land.

The good news is that there is a place where such a connection could be built. It's near Woodbourne station on the West Trenton line. South of this station, the West Trenton line tracks pass under the former Pennsylvania Railroad Trenton Cutoff, which connects with the main Northeast Corridor line at Morrisville, just across the Delaware from Trenton. A two-track flyover there from south of the crossover to east of it would allow for the through Commuter Tunnel service Previdi would like to see. Build that, and restore the catenary from the junction to Morrisville, and we're in business.

It would cost less to build this than it would to build the north-south tunnel under Philadelphia with stations at the airport and Market East Penn Praxis students envisioned as a routing for a future Northeast high-speed rail line.

Do we have the money and the political will to do this? Should we even do this at all? I know what Bob Previdi would say. What about you?

Follow Sandy Smith (@MarketStEl) on Twitter.

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