SEPTA link to Reading boosted
From: Yona Shtern [mailto:"yona.shtern\"sympatico.ca"@...]
Sent: Sunday, December 24, 2000 9:18 PM
Subject: SEPTA link to Reading boosted
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SEPTA link to Reading boosted
Norfolk Southern, long opposed to a commuter line, offers its tracks
if a new freight line is built.
By Jere Downs
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
Norfolk Southern has offered SEPTA a new way to build its proposed
MetroRail transit line from Philadelphia to Reading.
It's simple but expensive.
Norfolk Southern proposed last week giving SEPTA its railroad from
Norristown to Reading - if SEPTA will build the freight line a new railroad
in the region.
This proposal would increase the estimated cost of MetroRail to $2.2
billion - from last summer's $1.44 billion - but SEPTA officials were
pleased and undaunted.
Both parties framed the offer as the beginning of what is expected to
be long negotiations between the transit agency and the railroad for a
project intended to help unclog the Schuylkill Expressway, offer a rail link
to King of Prussia, and spur billions in transit-friendly commercial and
residential development in the booming western suburbs.
For four years, SEPTA has sought permission, first from Conrail and
then from Norfolk Southern, to run rail transit on new tracks in the freight
corridor from Norristown to Reading.
Norfolk Southern didn't like that idea.
"We are tired of being the bad guy, but there will always be conflict
if you try to move freight and passengers in the same corridor," said H.
Craig Lewis, Norfolk Southern's vice president of corporate affairs.
In his offer, Lewis proposed that SEPTA instead build Norfolk Southern
a railroad on the abandoned 32-mile Enola rail bed through Chester and
Lancaster Counties to Creswell, where it connects to a freight line to
The Norristown-to-Reading link "is our main line out of Philadelphia,"
Lewis said. "If you want to push freight off that line, we have to have
somewhere to go."
SEPTA general manager Jack Leary hailed Norfolk Southern's offer as a
"major victory" for the 62-mile MetroRail project.
"All along, I thought the best alternative for them [Norfolk Southern]
would be to adopt the Enola branch," Leary said. "I'm really pleased
[Norfolk Southern] has come to the table and said this [MetroRail] can be
Leary suggested that the benefits of MetroRail would offset the big
price tag. He predicted that MetroRail would spur private commercial and
residential development from Philadelphia to Reading at a scale "up to eight
times" the $2.2 billion cost.
In addition, Leary said, moving most freight off the track would
benefit SEPTA by encouraging industrial development along the Enola branch
instead. Norfolk Southern has proposed serving existing industrial customers
at night - such as making coal deliveries to the Peco Energy Co. plant at
"This is the equivalent of a new interstate highway," Leary said.
"Having the freight railroad elsewhere benefits everyone."
SEPTA and railroad officials stressed that the $783 million cost of
laying new track and signals for Norfolk Southern on the Enola railbed was
preliminary - the result of a $160,000 SEPTA-funded study that the railroad
MetroRail "has now moved from a vision to a concept," Leary said.
"These cost estimates are a blueprint for negotiations."
The new $2.2 billion estimate doesn't account for possible savings to
MetroRail construction if Norfolk Southern was no longer moving trains
through the Norristown-to-Reading corridor, Lewis said.
"Our gut feeling is that the cost of the Enola branch could be
entirely offset by cost reductions and time saved by SEPTA," he said.
Nonetheless, the latest dollar figures elevate MetroRail to the
largest infrastructure project in the region in decades.
The latest cost estimate outstrips the combined cost of two new
stadiums in South Philadelphia ($1.01 billion) and four current major
highway projects: adding nine miles of new Route 202 four-lane expressway in
Bucks and Montgomery Counties ($285 million); widening Route 202 and its new
interchange with the Schuylkill Expressway ($224 million); rebuilding
Interstate 95 ($95 million); and rebuilding 10 miles of Route 309 in
Montgomery County ($180 million).
SEPTA hopes 80 percent of MetroRail's cost will be paid by the Federal
Transit Administration and the rest by the state.
The escalating scale of the region's first new transit line in decades
alarmed MetroRail's critics.
"It is shameful that the price is now more than $2 billion when the
whole project can be done for $800 million," said Don Nigro, president of
the Delaware Valley Association of Rail Passengers.
The transit riders' advocacy group has lobbied for SEPTA to launch
modest passenger service in the Norristown-to-Reading corridor.
"In the software world, we call this type of proposal 'vaporware,' "
Nigro said. "It is entirely theoretical."
Still, Norfolk Southern's willingness to accommodate SEPTA at all
means that MetroRail has cleared a major hurdle, Leary said.
"This is a railroad that wouldn't even talk to us a few years ago,"
Leary said. "I applaud them."
The SEPTA-funded study also offered the possibility that MetroRail
could coexist with Norfolk Southern in the current Norristown-to-Reading
But the report from Frederic R. Harris Inc. of Philadelphia also cited
$153 million in costs to widen the right of way so passenger and freight
service could coexist on parallel tracks.
Most worrisome was the study's contention that Neversink Mountain near
Reading poses serious obstacles to MetroRail because the terrain makes it
impossible to build a transit line without disrupting Norfolk Southern
operations. The study did not estimate the cost of cutting into the mountain
to lay new double track for MetroRail.
Untold costs could also mount because of the need to acquire extensive
amounts of property in downtown Pottstown and move a Norfolk Southern rail
yard in Reading to the Enola branch, according to the report.
Though SEPTA commissioned the study to objectively catalog Norfolk
Southern's technical issues with MetroRail, planners at the transit agency
hinted Friday that they saw obstacles cited in the report as the railroad's
"It is the railroad's wish list," Chris Patton, SEPTA's director of
long-range planning, said.
Built in 1905 to relieve congestion on the Pennsylvania Railroad's
main Philadelphia-to-Harrisburg line, the Enola branch, named after a town
outside Harrisburg, was abandoned by Conrail in 1990. Rail ties and signals
were removed, leaving only a leafy rail bed running from Parkesburg, Chester
County, westward through Lancaster County to Harrisburg.
Jere Downs' e-mail address is jdowns@...
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