The Little City That Could: How Proposed Amtrak Rail Could Boost Scranton

Travelers boarding a train at Amtrak's Penn Station, Aug. 6, 2020, in New York. If Congress moves and approves President Joe Biden's plan to increase Amtrak funding, folks at Penn Station could one day board a train to Scranton. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

By Patrick Abdalla

April 9, 2021

Native son President Joe Biden could help the Electric City by boosting funding for Amtrak in his American Jobs Plan.

SCRANTON — A new Amtrak line from New York City to Scranton would put the Electric City economy on the fast track.

“It would be tremendous,” said Scranton Mayor Paige Cognetti. 

Elected officials and advocates have fought for more than 40 years to bring passenger rail back to the region, and that effort could be getting a boost from Scranton’s most famous native son. 

President Joe Biden is pushing for a $2 trillion infrastructure package called the American Jobs Plan that includes $10 billion for railroads in the US over five years.

As Biden introduced his plan, Amtrak released a map of how it would grow its services with the increased federal funding. When Cognetti saw the little light blue line connecting Scranton and New York, she was delighted.

While it’s still early in the process, Cognetti said the region is up to the challenge.

Bob Durkin, the CEO of the Scranton Chamber of Commerce, said the proposed line shows the city is ready. Amtrak wouldn’t consider going to an area if the organization didn’t think the region could support it, he said.

“Just the very fact that we could potentially have that connection would raise the status of the area,” he said.

That doesn’t mean the region doesn’t have a tough task ahead.

“There is a lot of work to do to make this happen,” Cognetti said. That includes coordination between state and local governments, as well as counterparts in New York and New Jersey. 

Long History of Rail in Scranton

Trains aren’t new to the area. They’re part of the history and the culture. 

From the early 1900s to 1979, railroad tracks connected travelers from Scranton to New York City. Trains shuttled residents between the cities daily. 

For much of that time, passengers traveled on the Phoebe Snow, a train run by the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad. The train traveled from Hoboken, New Jersey, to Buffalo, New York. For a few years, it even went as far as Chicago.

The Phoebe Snow was in its heyday when Biden was growing up in the Electric City.

Biden left the region in the 1950s, shortly before the trains became less profitable.

When the number of passengers and federal funding dwindled, the trains stopped.

But the trains have remained an important part of Scranton’s culture. The local professional baseball team is the RailRiders. Downtown Scranton hosts the Steamtown National Historic Site. The Radisson Lackawanna Station Hotel is a converted train station that greets visitors to the downtown area and is a popular spot for weddings, proms, and other events.

The Little City That Could: How Proposed Amtrak Rail Could Boost Scranton
The Radisson Lackawanna Station in Scranton. (Keystone Photo/Patrick Abdalla)

Rebuilding the Railway from Scranton to New York City

The Pennsylvania Northeast Regional Railroad Authority has been trying to bring passenger rail from the region to New York City since the 1980s. It started up buying parts of the rail line. By 2006, it owned 100 miles of railway from Carbondale, just north of Scranton, to the Delaware Water Gap, along the New Jersey border.

The authority has been working with regional governments, public officials, and its counterparts in New Jersey to bring a commuter line. It has secured several grants to help. But that still wasn’t quite enough money.

For now, freight trains and excursion lines from the Steamtown Historic Site run along the tracks. Lawrence C. Malski, the authority’s president, has a lot of hope for passenger and commuter rail to come soon. 

Malski says the possibility is more realistic today than it has been in the past, thanks to Biden’s vision.

The Amtrak money would be “a funding source that didn’t exist six months ago,” he said. “It is a whole new initiative.”

A Scranton line wouldn’t just connect people from Scranton or the Poconos with jobs in New Jersey and New York City. Malski said, “It would connect to any station in the continental United States and Canada. It gives us full service.”

The Little City That Could: How Proposed Amtrak Rail Could Boost Scranton
An excursion train at Steamtown National Historic Site in Scranton. (Shutterstock Photo/Wangkun Jia)

What Stands in the Way of Expanding Amtrak Service to Scranton?

Money and votes. If there’s not enough of either or both, that could stop the Amtrak train from rolling back into Scranton.

Amtrak officials have long discussed the line because it would naturally link New York City with Binghamton and other parts of upstate New York. Amtrak officials brought up the line in 2006 and again in November.

The project has been estimated to cost nearly $600 million, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.

Biden’s plan to increase Amtrak’s funds five-fold would help take a large bite out of that price tag.

For the plan to reach the rails, Congress will have to propose and pass legislation to increase Amtrak’s funding.

Democrats hold slim margins in the House and Senate. If they can get enough Republicans to join them in supporting the plan, they can keep everything on track.

Two Republican members of Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation have already come out against the bill.

But the region has a big advocate. Malski, Durkin, and Cognetti all praised US Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-Lackawanna) for his support of the project. He also happens to be chairman of the Commerce, Justice, and Science subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee. 

The Little City That Could: How Proposed Amtrak Rail Could Boost Scranton
Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Pa., arrives for town hall meeting, Nov. 1, 2013, at the Sovereign Majestic Theater in Pottsville, Schuylkill County. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

What Would Passenger Rail Mean to Northeastern Pennsylvania?

People in the region have hoped that a Biden presidency could be a boon to the area.

And Cognetti and Malski say a return of passenger rail would be just that.

“It serves all kinds of constituencies—commuters, college students, visitors,” Malski said.

It could make the local colleges more appealing, since students and staff could easily travel to and from New York City.

Cognetti said Scranton would benefit from being able to have people live here and work in New York City. It would broaden the tax base and help give more businesses reasons to come here.

“That would be huge for our economy,” she said. 

She brought up the idea of tech or financial companies having satellite offices in the region.

Durkin thinks the pandemic has proven this point. Business owners now know that they can have employees working outside the main office. So people could either have satellite offices or work remotely from Scranton.

He said businesses and individuals are going to be taking a closer at the city. 

“Why not consider Scranton a preferred second-tier metropolitan area,” Durkin said.


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