PA: Amtrak aims to cut duration of rail project between Harrisburg, Lancaster in half

May 3, 2024
Railroad tracks installed on Amtrak’s Harrisburg Line between Harrisburg and Lancaster as early as the 1950s are being replaced as part of a $122 million project.

Railroad tracks installed on Amtrak’s Harrisburg Line between Harrisburg and Lancaster as early as the 1950s are being replaced as part of a $122 million project.

The project, which started on March 15 in Lancaster, will replace 43 miles of rails, representing “nearly 100% of the rail” in the territory, install 113,000 concrete ties — which are used to connect rail tracks — and clean/renew 226,500 feet of gravel ballast.

Workers are currently working on the railroad tracks in the Middletown area in the second phase of the project. So far about 9 miles worth of track renewal has been completed. About 2,300 ties have been replaced so far.

“A tie is a piece of wood or concrete that holds the rails in place. So, that’s where the structural integrity of your track comes from,” said Laura Mason, executive vice president of capital delivery for Amtrak.

Mason and other Amtrak officials were in Middletown on Wednesday to give an update on the project and they say work is moving along faster than expected.

About 220 people are working on the railroad tracks stretched over a 2-mile distance. About 50 pieces of equipment are being used for the work. Crews are prepping the ties, installing the ties, putting the rail in, surfacing the track and doing the undercutting.

Each one of the wood ties is roughly about 200 pounds. The wood ties are being replaced by concrete ties, which are about 1,000 pounds.

Mason said some areas along the way have had renewal work done in the past so they will skip over those places. But at the end of the day, the goal is to make sure all 43 miles of tracks have been completed.

The wood ties currently used in the region only have an estimated lifespan of 25 years. The new concrete ties are expected to last 60 years.

Officials say a project like this would normally take approximately two years, but Amtrak is taking a different approach.

“This is the first time we ever had this amount of track time. In the past we’ve done this work primarily at night, on the weekends. We do it sometimes during the day but with trains passing so we have to clear up every time a train passes,” Mason said. “So you might work for 20, 30 minutes a day and then stop, and then work again and then stop. So this is our first time doing this type of limited truncation where we could [work from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.] with only two trains passing at the lunch break. So what’s done is having this machine operate continuously. So we’ve seen much higher productivity than we even planned for.”

Train service operates normally before 8 a.m. and after 4 p.m., but between those times no Keystone trains are operating on this stretch. Service runs at normal times all day Friday through Sunday. During lunchtime Monday through Thursday, the Pennsylvanian, which operates between Pittsburgh and New York City, goes through — one train in each direction.

While the work is being done, there’s one track out of service but the other track is being used to move the people doing the work. That track is cleared so the Pennsylvanian can run through during the lunch hour and the Keystone can resume normal service after 4 p.m. until the end of the day Monday through Thursday.

To help travelers with some of the changes, Amtrak has made some adjustments.

A car has been added to the Pennsylvanian and shuttle buses have replaced the train service from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Thursday between Harrisburg and Lancaster.

The shuttle bus service offers four daily round trips. Travelers should add an extra 45 minutes to their normal train travel time.

Travelers should check or the Amtrak mobile app for up-to-date train schedules and substitute bus transportation information.

The work on the railroad tracks affecting trains is expected to be completed on Nov. 22.

“What we’re focused on is getting all the work done that we can and try to pull that two years’ worth of work into one year. We’ve had a really strong start,” Mason said.

Crews will continue to work past Nov. 22 in a way that does not affect passenger service.

Phase three is expected to begin in mid-June and Amtrak officials will make announcements for passengers so that they are aware of modifications to the train schedule.

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