Ticket to ride

PennDOT grants funds to railroad companies for long-term improvement.

By Matt Schickling
Wire Staff Writer

COURTESY PAUL HARLAND / Gov. Tom Corbett recently announced the approval of more than $35 million in funding for 33 rail freight improvement projects across Pennsylvania as part of three programs managed by PennDOT

Despite the frigid temperatures, PennDOT has warmed up to local railroad companies by releasing funds for much-needed maintenance.

On Feb. 25, Gov. Tom Corbett announced the approval of more than $35 million in funding for 33 rail freight improvement projects across Pennsylvania as part of three programs managed by PennDOT.

One of these programs, the Rail Transportation Assistance Program (RTAP), granted funds to the Bucks County Railroad Preservation & Restoration Corp., which is responsible for the maintenance of the New Hope and Ivyland Railroad.

Though the railroad is mostly known for its tourist appeal with the Victorian-style station in New Hope and vintage passenger coaches that offer dining and drink options, the railroad also accommodates load-bearing freight trains.

“Most people know us only as a tourist line,” said Paul Nichini, the president of New Hope and Ivyland Railroad. “But It’s like owning your own highway and you’re responsible for the products on your line.”

And that is quite a responsibility, considering 42 percent of the tonnage of freight in America travels by rail, according to Nichini. The railways are also essential to the local economy: Nichini pointed to newly acquired customers at Double H Plastics and Old York Road Printing in Warminster to demonstrate the railroad’s importance to area businesses.

Double H Plastics uses the line to receive plastic resin from as far as Louisiana and Texas to manufacture packaging products. Old York Road Printing relies on the railroad to deliver large rolls of paper from Oregon and California so the company can use this material to supply specialized paper products to local communities.

Most of the rails on the nearly 17 miles of track date to the 1920s and will need replacing as soon as possible, said Nichini. Assistance from capital projects like RTAP provides these companies with the funds needed to ensure safety on the rail, which in turn boosts the national economy by providing a reliable transportation network for products across the nation.

RTAP also allotted funds to Montgomery County’s Pennsylvania Northeastern Railroad, which operates both on SEPTA passenger lines throughout Central Bucks and Montgomery County, but is mainly responsible for maintaining a nine-mile stretch of rail from Lansdale to Telford.

“There are multiple stretches of track work that have been left delinquent for many years,” said Eric Heffler, a representative of Pennsylvania Northeastern Railroad. The goal for him and many others working for the railroad companies is to improve the safety and infrastructure of the railways so that current and new customers can be confident in the quality of transportation.

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This type of proactive economic planning for the rail systems is somewhat new to PennDOT. Measures were taken in 2013 to ensure an equitable distribution of funds through all areas of state transportation.

“It was difficult to see what would be available for the RTAP,” said Erin Waters-Trasett, a PennDOT representative, alluding to the program’s existence before the 2013 passing of Act 89, a measure that created a long-term investment plan for transportation.

The Act specified the terms of a Multi-Modal Fund, which would be used to maintain and advance waterway, aviation, pedestrian, bicycle, passenger rail and freight rail facilities. Corbett’s announcement signaled the realization of a plan to set aside funds for all modes of transportation.

“Previously, there wouldn’t be a sustainable program, but the Multi-Modal Fund helps with long term planning to help sustain these other modes of transportation,” said Waters-Trasett.

The funding comes at a time when Pennsylvania’s railways are in great need. With the highest number of short line railroads of any state, and fifth-highest in rail miles, the condition of Pennsylvania’s railroad system is directly linked to statewide economic growth.

These projects are expected to improve rail networks for freight transportation and sustain more than 43,000 jobs with the possibility of creating more.

“There’s an overall potential for growth,” said Heffler. “It will increase our ability to better serve the community and area businesses.”