These railroad tracks could be getting more use if Amtrak's plan goes through. Reading Railroad
These railroad tracks could be getting more use if Amtrak's plan goes through.

Passenger rail service from Reading to Philadelphia started in the mid-1800s and lasted until 1981. Attempts to restore the service in the past have failed, a new hope has arrived.

READING — The last train to deliver passengers from Philadelphia pulled into the Franklin Street Station at 7:55 p.m. on June 30, 1981. 

That was the end of the line for passenger rail service in Reading, the county seat of Berks County. 

Community leaders, elected officials, and others have attempted many times over the past four decades to restore the service from Reading to Philadelphia, but have been unsuccessful.

But a new study financed by the Berks Alliance shows not only that reviving passenger rail service in Reading is financially possible and economically profitable, but has the support of Amtrak and President Joe Biden.

“There are so many positives going into the conversation today than in the past,” said Jim Gerlach, CEO and president of the Greater Reading Chamber Alliance. “We are looking at it in a different way that makes it more fiscally responsible. And possible.”

Biden recently unveiled his $2 trillion infrastructure package called the American Jobs Plan that includes $10 billion for railroads across the country.

Amtrak then released its plans to expand rail service, including a route from Reading to Philadelphia.

Berks County Commissioner Christian Leinbach said Amtrak’s support for the project is integral to its success and an important step in the ongoing efforts to restore service.

“Amtrak is an important piece of the puzzle,” Leinbach said. “And one we didn’t have before. It’s a positive step forward.”

How Could Restored Rail Service Help Reading?

“This will connect Berks in a way we’ve never seen before,” Leinbach said. “It will put Reading and Berks County on the map.”

And it would bring “a huge amount” of economic development in the city, said Gerlach, a former congressman. “It will increase property values, bring new investors and developers to the area, and increase jobs in Berks County. It will greatly benefit our area and surrounding areas.”

According to estimates in the Berks Alliance’s study, if passenger rail service is restored, Reading property values would increase by a total of $265.9 million between 2025 and 2054 because of the easy access to cities along the Northeast Corridor. During the same time period, city revenue from property taxes would increase by $240 million. Even personal incomes in Reading will increase by a total of $180.1 million, the study said.

In addition to economic benefits, rail service would help to alleviate traffic congestion on routes 422 and 222 as well as improve climate and air quality conditions with less emissions from commuting cars and trucks.

What’s Different About a Reading Railroad Now?

Various organizations have done studies over the years, but those studies have failed to move the project forward.

A 1999 study commissioned by the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission proposed building a new electrified railway with a price tag of $2 billion. It failed due to lack of funding.

A 2008 study initiated by the Montgomery County Planning Commission compared different train operating options—diesel, dual-mode, and all electric—for extending service from Norristown to Reading. Its fatal flaw was a proposal to toll Route 422 to finance the rail service. 

There were other studies done at the request of freight rail line Norfolk Southern, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA), and the Berks Area Regional Transit Authority. Nothing ever panned out. 

But the Berks Alliance’s latest study is different, Gerlach said. It proposes an inter-city service utilizing current infrastructure, expanding the route out of Philadelphia to New York City and Washington, DC. This opens up new avenues of federal funding, can be operated without annual subsidies, and turns the passenger rail service into a profitable enterprise.

“The two impediments that we experienced in the past were the federal funding and how the local communities come up with their share,” Gerlach said. “That was the big question that we never got a solid answer to. Today, this kind of project will result in additional revenues that will help contribute to the cost. We’ve got the answers to those questions now.”

The study estimated the total cost of restoring train service to be around $356 million, including paying Norfolk Southern for the right-of-way costs for its tracks, upgrades to tracks and stations, and the purchase and operation of the trains. It is still much less than the $2 billion proposed in the 1999 study because this new plan uses existing rails rather than building new tracks.

How Would a Reading Railroad Operate? 

Six trains would make eight daily round-trips from Reading to Philadelphia.

Each train would stop in Pottstown, Royersford, Phoenixville, and Norristown. Stops could also include Wyomissing and Birdsboro. Train stations still exist in each town, including Reading, and would need only minor upgrades such as additional platforms.

In Philadelphia, the train would stop at Temple University, Jefferson Station, Suburban Station, and 30th Street Station.

With a train running at a speed of 79 mph, a trip from Reading to Philadelphia would take approximately 1 hour and 22 minutes. This is similar to the time it took before passenger rail service was discontinued in Reading in the 1980s.

The new study estimated an annual operating cost to be $20 million. Revenue from riders is expected to cover annual costs and possibly allow it to be self-sustaining.

“For this project to succeed, it has to have its own legs,” Leinbach said. “It has to have its own merit. The study proved it could.”

What are the Next Steps to Restoring Service?

An important step that recently got underway was the formation of the Tri-County Passenger Rail Committee, which consists of county representatives from Berks, Chester, and Montgomery counties. Leinbach, Gerlach, and Berks County Director of Economic Development Pamela Shupp Menet represent Berks on the committee.

“In the past, we never got beyond the study,” Leinbach said. “Here, we’ve gotten past the study and all three counties are on board.”

The regional committee formed in March and has met only once. The next step in the process has yet to be determined, but will definitely need to include meetings with Amtrak, SEPTA, and Norfolk Southern. 

Both Leinbach and Gerlach agree that another important step is getting Gov. Tom Wolf to add passenger rail service from Reading to Philadelphia as an active project on the state’s official list. This way, the project can get funding from federal and state sources.

Funding from Biden’s infrastructure plan would be a big help, Leinbach said. And the president’s support of reviving passenger rail service in Reading is a significant step forward for the future of the project.

Almost 40 years after the last train pulled out of the Franklin Street Station, a ticket to ride the passenger rail from Reading to Philadelphia might be within grasp.