Happening Now

[Guest Blog] Advocating For The Lackawanna Cut-Off

May 17, 2021

“The train has been 15 years away for 25 years.”

By Tyler Kusma, Rail Passengers Council Representative, Pennsylvania

When I first got started advocating to restore the Lackawanna Cut-off, the joke I heard was “the train has been 15 years away for 25 years.” It was a joke, but also a warning— don’t get your hopes up. Scranton was once a regional hub for passenger rail, but the last train left in 1971 and the track ripped up. When Amtrak debuted their 2035 vision plan last year, service to Scranton was in the 2035 group. Yep, 15 years away! I guess the universe does have a sense of humor.

The Cut-off restoration is simultaneously slowly progressing while also a miracle that it has made it this far. The progress it has made it so far (like re-purchasing the land after it was sold by Conrail or doing a cost analysis study) has been thanks to funding cobbled together from various sources. I believe it is also the only one of the thirty-nine proposed new Amtrak routes that is already under construction. Work still remains though— chiefly laying the rail over the final twenty-one miles to reconnect Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

However it’s amazing the impact a map (and Amtrak’s subsequent Amtrak Connects Us map from earlier this year) can have. A significant issue the past few years for this project has been NJ Transit’s softened support and if the rail service does not want to do it, it’s hard to get said rail service to operate. But now Amtrak(!) was proposing service which I do not think anyone expected for years, if ever. After years of front page newspaper articles about how progress was slow or Cut-off restoration remaining a long shot, there have been multiple front page articles of good and exciting news. President Biden even highlighted service to Scranton during his speech on Amtrak’s 50th anniversary! People are starting to get hope that this project will actually happen and in their lifetimes.

Another critical aspect is that the Cut-off is now firmly on the agenda for many elected officials. Northeast Pennsylvanians are lucky that many of the top elected officials (including Congressman Cartwright and Senator Casey) are supportive of the project. But it has sometimes been difficult to translate that support into action. Inspired by the mayor campaign done for the Southwest Chief (and my thanks to Doug Kerr for his advice), the Scranton Rail Restoration Coalition (a grassroots group I started about two years ago to harness the local support) launched its own elected officials outreach campaign this week to get local elected officials to reach out to their members of Congress and emphasize the need for a federal funding source.

In many ways, the Lackawanna Cut-off Restoration Project is like rail projects across the country— great potential, but slow progress because of the lack of federal funding. But I’m sure with the hard work of RPA advocates across the country and the staff— 2021 will be a tremendous year for new passenger rail service.