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Pittsburgh’s not often used T station is being revived. Is there a future?

Maryn Formley’s niece called her in a panic on March 2. She was stuck in Downtown Pittsburgh, trying to get home from work on the bus, but a protest had created a detour that Saturday.

Maryn Formley’s niece called her in a panic on March 2. She was stuck in Downtown Pittsburgh, trying to get home from work on the bus, but a protest had created a detour that Saturday.

A rarely used light-rail transit station in Pittsburgh came to the rescue.

Formley’s niece called from outside the Greyhound bus station on the edge of Downtown. Formley, of Brookline, told her to walk to a nearby LRT station and take a train (the “T”) to Station Square, where she would pick her up.

While on the phone, her niece said she spotted a T train pulling up behind The Pennsylvanian, the building across from Greyhound.

Formley was surprised. That’s not where any current Downtown T stations are located. But she remembered that years ago, a T stop had been there.

“I told her, ‘They don’t use that anymore.’ But she spoke to the driver and he said he was going to Station Square,” Formley recalled.

Her niece hopped on the T at what’s called “Penn Station” — a seldom-used light-rail stop alongside the East Busway stop and the Amtrak station. In just a few minutes, she rode the rail through Downtown, over the Panhandle Bridge and on to Station Square. Formley picked her up.

Formley’s niece took advantage of a recent quirk in Pittsburgh Regional Transit’s service.

The agency has started a $150 million reconstruction and upgrade project for its light-rail lines and stations. While work Downtown was being completed on some weekends and other low-service times over the past months, PRT ran light-rail cars to Penn Station from Steel Plaza. Riders could take a shuttle bus to and from Gateway Station.

For about seven weeks starting after the Pittsburgh Pirates’ home opener on April 5, Penn Station will be in constant use while construction work Downtown is completed.

The temporary service to Penn Station reignites light-rail to northern Downtown for the first time since 2008, when the agency ran a few afternoon trips on weekdays, said PRT spokesman Adam Brandolph.

For PRT officials, the use of Penn Station helps the agency limit detours, but the change is not seen as permanent. For transit riders who spoke to TribLive, the new station has boosted their spirits — either for additional convenience, the novelty of a new trip, or the glint of hope for expanded transit service.

Penn Station history

Light-rail cars travel from Steel Plaza station, which is underground, along a tunnel up to Penn Station, which is aboveground.

This tunnel, completed in 1829, was originally part of the Pennsylvania Canal, which was the fastest way to travel across Pennsylvania before the Pennsylvania Railroad came along.

When most of the canal was replaced with the railroad between the 1860s and 1900s, the tunnel became part of the Pittsburgh & Steubenville Extension Railroad.

Eventually, Penn Station and the canal tunnel were included in the great debate about “Skybus” in the 1960s and 1970s, said Brandolph. Skybus was a proposed network of elevated, automated bus lines across Allegheny County using technology created by Westinghouse.

The Skybus plan never became a reality.

The East Busway, which started in 1983, has a station near the Penn Station light-rail stop. Tracks were laid from Penn Station as part of the Red Line, which opened in 1987.

Brandolph stated that the original route to Penn Station started in 1983 when Port Authority (formerly Pittsburgh Regional Transit) operated streetcars. Modern light-rail cars were added to the route in 1987.

For many years, the spur transported passengers daily between the busway and Steel Plaza. It ceased operating in 1993 due to budget cuts, according to Brandolph.

After 1993, the spur was occasionally used for a few trips on weekday afternoons. These trips were also discontinued by 2008 as a result of budget cuts, Brandolph mentioned.

The Penn Station spur was never very efficient.

Brandolph mentioned that the spur has only one set of tracks because the tunnel runs between the foundational pillars of the U.S. Steel Tower.

“Operators need to ‘switch ends.’ That means they literally walk from one light-rail car to the other to travel in the opposite direction after they arrive at the station,” he said.

In 2018, PRT completed repairs to Penn Station, including new cement finish and tactile pavers, a public address visual messaging board, and rail-specific technical upgrades.

This allowed Penn Station to have some renewed activity, intermittently, for special events like the Pittsburgh Marathon and for emergencies, according to Brandolph. He mentioned that these occasional rides have drawn some fans.

“A lot of transit fans go to Penn Station on Marathon day,” he said. “They enjoy seeing the multimodal aspect of that station since it connects with the busway and is very close to the Amtrak station.”

New fans

Penn Station has seen increased use recently, thanks to construction projects. It is already gaining a fan base.

Several individuals told TribLive that they have used the spur in the past couple of months.

Amy Zaiss, from Beechview, said the Penn Station spur has been extremely beneficial for her. A regular Red Line rider, she doesn’t own a car. She has already taken advantage of the station’s smooth transfers to the busway and Amtrak.

She remembered a trip where she took the light-rail to Penn Station, then walked a short distance to the busway stop and caught a bus to East Liberty. She said the entire trip took about 25 minutes, which is just as quick as driving between Beechview and East Liberty.

“In my experience, it is a really useful transfer. I do go to the East End quite a bit,” said Zaiss, 37.

She mentioned that the ride up from Steel Plaza to Penn Station is quite fast and offers a great view of The Pennsylvanian, the Beaux Arts style building from 1900 that formerly served as the Pennsylvania Railroad headquarters. It is now a mixed-use office and residential space.

Zaiss said she has noticed some confused individuals when the train arrives at Penn Station, but she hasn’t faced any major inconveniences.

Allen Warren, a digital editor at WTAE, mentioned that he has used the spur twice since the fall. He appreciated the proximity of Penn Station to Amtrak.

“I used it about two weeks ago to take my sister to the Amtrak station,” he said. “It made things very easy to be able to take the T there.”

Julian Xie, from Oakland, was a little surprised when he took the T to the spur in February.

He was heading to Mt. Lebanon for singing lessons on an early February Sunday. On his way back, the T continued to Penn Station instead of turning to Wood Street station, Xie’s stop.

Xie, 30, took his bike on the bus and light-rail, and then he biked to Seventh Avenue to catch a bus back to Oakland, which he said didn’t bother him much.

“It was unexpected, but it didn’t add time to my journey,” Xie said. “In some ways, it was easier than other times.”

Xie mentioned that getting his bike up and down from Steel Plaza or Wood Street stations is tough. Penn Station is at ground level, which makes it easy to exit with a bike.

He mentioned that he mostly rides the bus, but taking his bike on the T is much easier than putting it on the racks at the front of a bus.

Xie expressed that he would like to see the Penn Station spur used regularly, especially if more bus routes used the busway. He said the transfer from busway directly to light-rail would make it easier for him and many others to get from the East End to the North Shore or South Hills.

He also mentioned that public transit access to the Amtrak station could be improved.

“I would use whichever is faster and more frequent in real life,” Xie said.

Is there a future?

Brandolph said there are no immediate plans to continue regular use of Penn Station after Downtown light-rail construction is completed.

He stated that before the pandemic, when overall transit ridership was higher, there were discussions to reopen Penn Station. But those talks have been tabled due to the extensive projects on the rail system over the next few years.

A proposal to run light-rail from Penn Station, through Pittsburgh’s Allentown neighborhood to the South Hills Junction station, was included in PRT’s long-range plan, a document that includes many ambitious proposals across the transit network.

Chris Sandvig, executive director of the transportation advocacy group Mobilify, said new life for the station could be warranted in the near future.

He said Amtrak is adding a second, daily passenger train trip between Pittsburgh and New York City and that could add demand for transfers to the region’s light-rail network. Pick-ups for Amtrak trains and Greyhound buses can cause traffic congestion; adding a light-rail station there could alleviate some of that.

“The opportunity is staring us in the face,” Sandvig said. “If we have this transfer point to get to rapid transit to points east and south, how much would that alleviate any worries about getting to Greyhound and Amtrak without a car?”

A light-rail stop at Penn Station could also align with PRT’s plan for a Downtown Transit Center, if the agency decided northern Downtown was a good fit, said Sandvig.

Beyond just reopening Penn Station permanently, extending light-rail from Penn Station due east has also been discussed.

According to a U.S. Department of Transportation report from October 1987, the busway was originally meant as an interim solution to provide high-capacity transit through that corridor. The report said that fixed-rail transit along the busway could be built at a later date.

Brandolph mentioned that there have been a few ideas to lengthen the tracks beyond Penn Station. These include adding light-rail tracks on top of the busway or adding a third rail next to the freight rail tracks that run along the busway.

He mentioned that this could involve either replacing the buses or running trains alongside them. There's also a plan to lengthen tracks along the busway to 26th Street in the Strip District and possibly run light-rail up the Allegheny Valley Railroad tracks through the Strip District, Lawrenceville, Oakmont, Verona, New Kensington, and beyond.

All of these plans would need a lot of money, and many would require extensive negotiations with private rail companies that own the rail lines.

Any new routes or additions would have to compete with the proven success of the East Busway.

The busway that goes from Penn Station through the city’s East End, and along to Wilkinsburg and Swissvale, is the most used transit corridor in the PRT system. It averages about 9,400 riders a day, according to agency data. The agency’s three light-rail lines combined average about 9,900 daily riders.

Brandolph mentioned that the East Busway is also the most efficient line in the system and that running light rail along the spine would be more costly than buses. He added that the busway is also used daily by emergency vehicles, and has been used as a valuable staging area for parades and other events.

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