It has been about four decades since Reading’s historic railroad actively connected Philadelphia with each of its northernmost suburbs – now a distant plan to return its spiritual successor one step closer to implementation.
The Chester County Council of Commissioners voted unanimously Wednesday to join forces with their counterparts in Montgomery County and Berks County in establishing the Schuilkill River Passenger Railway Authority (SRPRA).
With Amtrak, the new government will rebuild passenger trains connecting Reading, Phoenixville, Potstown and Philadelphia.
The first SRPRA members will consist of three individuals from each county, including Chester County Commissioner Marianne Muscovite, Montgomery County Commissioner Ken Lawrence Jr. and Berks County Commissioner Christian Leinbach.
“In this polarized world now, I think it’s great that not only are three counties working together, which is very rare, but it’s a non-partisan issue – Christian Leinbach is a Republican and Ken [Lawrence] and I am a Democrat, but we worked hard to make it happen, ”Maskowitz said.
Muscovites are very excited about the prospect of returning rail links to the northern part of the Czech Republic. Over the past year, a committee of three counties has been working to discuss project prospects with Amtrak and SEPTA on how to resume service.
“After all, SEPTA has an extremely limited budget and can do nothing, but Amtrak has approached the table with funding from infrastructure [bill]… So now Amtrak will be our carrier. And they’ll be spending a couple of trips a day to get started, and hopefully we’ll get to 10-12 a day. But it will not start tomorrow, ”Maskovich said.
She stressed that much work remains to be done before people can re-imagine the sounds of passenger trains echoing outside their homes.
But Muscovite hopes that now a plan has finally begun to restore trains in areas that are “desperately” in need of communication. Although the district-level movement is finally in full swing, Muscovite stressed that it has been a community-led mission for many years.
Phoenixville Mayor Peter Urscheler is another inaugural member of government. For a long time he was a strong supporter of the project.
“In 2018, we created a really great mass group here in the Phoenix area, so we called it the mayor’s task force to rebuild the railroad. Another interesting thing is that there were groups in Berks County as well as in Montgomery County who were also evaluating the resumption of rail traffic on this line. And so, fast forward to where we are today, these groups have really come together to work together with our district commissioners, ”Urscheler said.
Just like Muscovite, the mayor also paid tribute to their predecessors before setting up the group in 2018, which has pushed for the return of rail transport over the past few decades.
Trains have not stopped in Phoenix since 1981, when SEPTA took the helm of regional rail lines, ending the game of bankruptcy initiated by previous companies.
As the line was not electrified, SEPTA stopped services due to high costs, which means that regional rail communications outside Noristowna have stopped.
Creating a body of power is a major part of the puzzle in reviving the remnants of the Railway.
“You really need a centralized organization to run Amtrak or SEPTA, and so the establishment of the Shuilkil River Passenger Railway Administration is indeed the first official step in restoring the railway service of these communities. In this way, it gives legal personality to operators such as Amtrak and SEPTA, with whom you can really work, ”Urscheler said.
Now SRPRA can request funding for research to be carried out, development of stations and, if necessary, acquisition of components for line rehabilitation.
The county predicts the project could bring in more than $ 1 billion for development along the line. Urscheler sees a lot of benefits stemming from the return of rail services to the region.
“First of all, it has great economic benefits if we have the opportunity for people in the Phoenixville area to get to other employment centers,” he said.
He added that the opportunities for tourism are also endless.
“But overall, just in terms of the environment and the ability to reduce road congestion, like [US] 422 and the Shuilkil expressway, this is a win-win situation for us because Phoenixville is extremely committed to environmental impact. Therefore, if we can provide public transport and encourage more people to use public transport, we believe that it is really positive for our community, ”Urscheler said.
For Berks and some of Potstown it is also a matter of equity. We need to be able to move people efficiently so they can get jobs, they can go shopping, they don’t need to have cars. So I mean, this is just such a win-win situation for all three constituencies, ”Maskowitz said.
As for the specifics of the plan, the line will also use a piece of the Norfolk Southern industrial line. While he originally plans to serve Reading, Phoenixville, Potstown and Philadelphia, Muscovite said perhaps he could expand to include stops in places like Valley Forge Park.
And although SEPTA will not be a partner in the initial stages with SRPRA, it is very likely that the new railway will use the SEPTA line when it gets to Norristown.
“This means we need to have a dual-engine engine that can run on an industrial line and then switch to an electric one,” Muscovite said.
Scott France is the director of the Montgomery County Planning Commission and another member of the new transit authority.
“The best word to describe the whole process was cooperation. Chester County was a great partner, as was Berks County, ”France said.
He added that in the last few years there have been times when people did not consider the project viable.
“It was never seen as achievable. A lot of effort has been put in, but it seemed like a time when, when it was supposed to happen, the opportunity came now, ”France said. “We heard a significant percentage of positive feedback both during the public hearings and on the eve of them. And when we talk to communities … it’s always been very encouraging to hear how much people want this rail service back and how they think it will benefit their communities. “
France is thrilled with Potstown and what the rail service can do for the area. He believes businesses could view this part of the county as a more attractive place to start.
“We are really pleased that Potstown has a number of our disadvantaged communities in the county, and serving those who have not had it before is another strength of this project,” France said.
The next meeting of the committee, which became a body of power, will be held in late June.
Now that this is an official operation, SRPRA can accept funds. Muscovite said the government recently received a grant to fund the study with the help of U.S. Senator Bob Casey and U.S. Representative Chris Hulahan.
There are still no deadlines for the project, but the public can expect more information on SRPRA’s plans during the last week of June.