4641 Yates Road
Bensalem, PA 19020
August 12, 2005
Mayor Joseph DiGirolamo
Bensalem Township Municipal Building
2400 Byberry Road
Bensalem, PA 19020
Dear Mayor DiGirolamo,
I am writing to you regarding the current emergency situation that Amtrak service to and from Bensalem finds itself in. At this writing, I am not even sure you have been informed yet that the emergency exists. Amtrak is discontinuing all of its service to the Cornwells Heights train station in Bensalem in October.
I and many others in the Bensalem area depend on Amtrak to commute to our workplaces in New York City and Newark. For four years now I have commuted quite comfortably to Manhattan, and I have watched station ridership gradually grow in that time, up until the Acela train debacle last spring when Amtrak discontinued two of its four New York-bound trains to make up for loss of the Acela routes elsewhere. Since then, many of the old time commuters have had to switch to driving to Trenton in order to catch timely trains. Ridership started slipping, and today I received confirmation directly from Amtrak that due to what they consider to be a low station usage rate they intend to discontinue all Amtrak service to Bensalem (Cornwells Heights in their schedule books) in October.
Service cutbacks have been rumored for months, yet online schedules actually show a theoretical doubling of New York-bound trains happening as of October 31st. The train conductors, though, have recently warned us that the station is on the hit list for complete termination. I had to dig hard to get Amtrak to officially admit it, but as proof of their intent to stop all service to Bensalem, I am herewith enclosing a copy of their correspondence sent to me this day in which they flatly spell out that October is the end of the line. Bucks County, and Bensalem in particular, will lose its one and only Amtrak stop within two months. I would like to volunteer to do everything I can to help you save the Amtrak stop, should you think doing so would be in Bensalem's best interests. At the very least, I believe the station's demise should be postponed long enough to explore reasonable plans to save it.
New York commuting out of Bensalem's train station is, unfortunately, one of the best kept secrets in town. Perhaps not one person in a hundred in this area realizes that very acceptable New York City commuting is an option for residents of Northeast Philadelphia and Lower Bucks County. One of my commuting friends actually drives over the Betsy Ross Bridge from New Jersey to catch the train on a daily basis. I live seven minutes from the station in Glenn Ashton Farms, and yet his drive to the station is only ten minutes longer than mine! If the Cornwells Heights station has not achieved great ridership, I believe it is primarily because almost nobody in the area knows about it. There are tens of thousands of high-paying executive and professional jobs within walking distance of New York's Penn Station (my job, in fact, being one of them), and Bensalem is only an hour and change away (62 to 85 scheduled minutes, depending on which train one currently takes), but I've even seen it done in 59 minutes from time to time.
The counter-argument to Amtrak service is that Septa and New Jersey Transit trains are able to achieve the same trip all day long on an hourly basis. This may be fine for the very occasional traveler, but it is the kiss of death for the daily commuters, as follows:
1) Septa-NJT commuting takes an average of just over two hours inbound to New York, and just under the two hour mark returning. Overall, it means 4 hours of train time daily plus two changes of train. Amtrak does it in a total of 2.3 hours with no train changes! For daily commuters, that alone is all the difference in the world. (And the Septa-NJT situation is actually worse, on average, than 4 hours, since it is subject to delays on twice as many separate trains and sometimes fails to make connections at Trenton.)
2) Septa and NJT run trains which can impolitely be called "cattle cars for people." They generally have bench seats without headrests, and minimal seat padding, if any. They have uncomfortably little leg room and no fold-down trays for laptops or paperwork. You can't sleep on them, and you can't get work done on them. They are functional dead zones. Amtrak, on the other hand, offers comfortable, fully padded, reclining seats with good leg room and fold-down trays for everyone. In the morning you can get an extra hour of sleep. In the evening, you can pound out e-mails and work up spreadsheets on your laptop. Amtrak is exactly the service daily commuters need.
Frankly, if someone offered to put my current job in a new location an hour's drive from my house, I would prefer to keep it in Manhattan with the Amtrak commute simply because, though the total travel time is longer, it is way way lower in stress than rush hour driving, and the train time is very much compensated for in terms of productive activities (work/sleep/recreation).
Some of the conductors I frequently speak with are very upset at what they regard as the amazing stupidity of cutting off or even cutting back Amtrak service to Bensalem. Some who have been with Amtrak for a long time say they really believe that Bensalem is the next logical step past Princeton Junction for New York commuters. It really makes a ton of sense both to them and to me. We all think the station is dying now, not because it's not a great location for commuting, but because almost nobody except the New York commuters who have somehow already discovered it seem to know about it. If it could get the promotion and visibility it deserves (combined with service restored to the levels it used to get, or better), there is not a doubt in my mind that droves of New York commuters could be attracted to not only the station, but Bensalem in particular as a great place to live.
Consider the following:
1) Upscale new construction like the 200 Wellington Estates homes, currently being built just five minutes from the train station, goes for nearly $200,000 less in Bensalem than it does in the Princeton Junction area, where the typical car commute to the station is actually considerably longer.
2) Most people who even look past Princeton Junction for affordable housing with a New York commute don't even think to look past Trenton, the next stop past Princeton Junction for Amtrak. Looking at Trenton means $90/month garage parking plus driving into central Trenton from an upscale outlying suburb like Yardley. Not necessarily a fine way to start and end the day, and even at that, the Yardley housing prices aren't any great bargain.
3) Despite the negatives associated with commuting to New York from Trenton, several hundred people seem to do it on a regular basis. Many drive into Trenton from the Yardley/Newtown/New Hope areas and help fill up the big parking garages there.
4) Even among the Princeton Junction and Trenton commuters I meet on a daily basis, there is almost zero awareness that the next stop down the line, Cornwells Heights, is a commuting oasis, if not even a nirvana for some. There is almost no word of mouth getting to New York City about the existence of a good commuting hub just eleven minutes past Trenton. (That is the actual average time it takes to travel between the two stations! Schedules show it as 11 to 16 minutes based on the extra time it takes on some runs to load passengers at Trenton. But the bottom line is that 11 minutes after people start queuing up to step onto Trenton's platform level escalator, walk through the station, and head across the street towards the parking garages, Bensalem commuters step off the train almost directly into their spacious, free parking lot. Bensalem commuters are driving out of the parking lot about the same time that the Trenton commuters are still driving towards the Trenton city limits. The Trenton commuters have no clue that this is even happening, and would likely feel a bit more cheated by life if they did.)
5) Bensalem actually offers something very wonderful that neither Princeton Junction nor Trenton offer at all, easy access to the finest fruits of a top-ten American city: Philadelphia! There are many, many reluctant New York expatriates commuting from the Princeton and Trenton areas. These are people who love the arts, love museums, love Broadway, and love big name entertainment ¾ but then move out to New Jersey or Long Island to give the kids an affordable yard and Little League, all despite their cultured Manhattan cravings. Bensalem is the perfect place for these expatriates. They can hop in the car and be at the Dali exhibit or the Tweeter Center in thirty minutes, and they can't do that traveling in any direction from mid-New Jersey.
6) By my reading, Bensalem has only recently been discovered as an upscale living place for central Philadelphia commuters. It is on the verge of being discovered by the New York commuters as well, to the extent they can ever discover that it even exists as an option. Bensalem is uniquely situated to "switch hit" for people with excellent jobs and careers, with SEPTA and cars handling the good Philadelphia jobs, and Amtrak handling New York. This is where the railroads ought to drive a golden spike instead of shutting down the New York run. I moved to Bensalem in 1998 from the New York City area to follow a high tech job opportunity in suburban Philadelphia while hedging my bets and keeping open the possibility of returning to a New York City job in the future. It turned out to be brilliant planning, because the Philadelphia company started heading south just as a high tech Manhattan startup wanted me back in the city very very badly. Given the volatility of all jobs these days, including executive and professional positions, living in a spot where Philadelphia and New York are both practical workplaces should be an enormous selling point for Bensalem. Yet I have never seen the thought promoted in print or advertised anywhere.
7) You can buy an Amtrak ticket for any of 11 trains a day to New York City from Harrisburg. Every single one of them passes through Bensalem. One stops here. You can also get any of 11 trains to New York from Elizabethtown, Lancaster, and Paoli. The Amtrak New York train service is somewhat less from Downingtown, Exton, and Ardmore. They only get 9 or 10. And bringing up the rear, Middletown, Coatesville, Parkesburg, and Mount Joy only get 6 or 7 trains to New York City every day. And every single one of them goes through Bensalem. Amtrak Northeast Corridor trains add another 34 to the list of trains going to New York that pass through Bensalem every day. One of that group currently stops in Bensalem, too. But in October, 45 Amtrak trains a day will run to New York through the Cornwells Heights station in Bensalem, and not a single one of them will stop. The folks from Harrisburg and Paoli will only be able to wave goodbye to the last remnants of Pennsylvania's New York commuters as they sail through the station 11 times every day.
8) On the Amtrak website, the Keystone service trains, the ones that come out of Harrisburg and whoosh through Bensalem 11 times a day, have a printable schedule page with a prominent advertisement proudly stating, "Amtrak and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania are building a new railroad along the Keystone Corridor." My research indicates that, in fact, about $100,000,000 is being invested in track upgrades and replacements to actually improve service for the 11 trains out of Harrisburg that serve the region between Harrisburg and Philadelphia in addition to the Philadelphia to New York City link. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania subsidizes Amtrak like crazy to make the stops between Harrisburg and Philadelphia. In fact, it costs exactly the same amount of money to buy a ticket from Harrisburg to New York City as it does to buy a ticket from Philadelphia to New York City, $53. It costs $53 from every single Amtrak Keystone train stop between Harrisburg and Philadelphia to go to New York City, and all of those trains go through Philadelphia and Bensalem. Pennsylvania is essentially subsidizing Amtrak to give anyone who wants to go to New York City a free ride into Philadelphia, even if that means shipping them 104 miles for free from Harrisburg to Philadelphia so they can then make the remaining 91-mile run to New York (through Bensalem!). The Keystone trains have always proudly been Pennsylvania's own enormously subsidized branch of Amtrak, yet it seems that Harrisburg and Washington have both forgotten that Bensalem is also part of Pennsylvania. Ironically, it's probably the only station in Pennsylvania on the Keystone run that stands a prayer of ever paying its own way with New York riders. It is nothing less than an affront to the state of Pennsylvania to let Amtrak use current Bensalem ridership as an excuse to run Pennsylvania's own bought-and-paid-for trains, the Keystones, through Bensalem without letting a single one of them pick up a passenger.
9) And the icing on the Amtrak argument cake is the slot machine kicker. I suspect that when New Yorkers find out that Bensalem has casinos and is one hour from Penn Station (arguably the transportation nerve center of Manhattan) by comfortable train, the casinos will send their door-to-door shuttles to meet the Cornwells Heights trains for free, and maybe even pick up the cost of the Amtrak ticket to boot. This will not happen with uncomfortable two-hour Septa-NJT links.
The Amtrak conductors I frequently talk with have helped educate me on a number of the points I have raised in this letter. Some were with Amtrak when Princeton Junction was a low-platform, low-volume stop on the New York run. Twenty-some years later, it has a beautiful, full-length, high-rise platform and thousands of daily commuters. It is the growth capital of New Jersey. They know that as Princeton prices rise and the land supply there grows short, the torch is going to be passed farther down the line. Trenton is too old and urban and semi-blighted to fit the bill, and both they and I see Bensalem as the successor. Bensalem has it all: a huge, half-full, free park-and-ride lot attached to I-95 (including free shuttles between the cars and the trains), none of Trenton's problems, and a commute time not a lot worse than Princeton Junction’s and certainly no worse than Trenton's (when one considers the time it takes to leave Trenton, as virtually all do), with its hundreds of daily commuters. But the only thing that allows Bensalem to inherit the next wave of commuting prosperity from Princeton is Amtrak. We are the switch-hitting site. We are the site with big city amenities, great neighborhoods near the station, and reasonable costs for housing and living in general. But the word has to start getting out if it's not going to become a lost horizon instead. If Amtrak goes dead at Cornwells Heights in October, it may never come back.
My commuting friends generally share my belief that Cornwells Heights is a station a dozen times worth saving, not just because we use it, but because it is a completely hidden gem that is ripe for discovery.
Mayor DiGirolamo, my current plan is to get this note to you by Monday, the 15th, in hopes that you might be able to give me some feedback before I approach other governmental figures at all levels, as well as press outlets, which I hope to do by the end of next weekend. I feel that now that I have finally received a definitive statement from an Amtrak representative that Bucks County and Bensalem will together lose their one and only Amtrak stop within two months, an eleventh hour effort has to be made to at least delay the shutdown until the 9-point argument I've advanced for the station's preservation can be considered, and perhaps even acted upon. If I and others are right, cutting off Bensalem's Amtrak service would be one of the all time stupidest things Amtrak and the state that pays for free 104-mile rides from Harrisburg could let happen. And it's a goldmine of future opportunity for Bensalem that we may never, ever see come our way again.
Thank you for taking the time to read this letter. I hope it has persuaded you of even more than you might already have felt about the need to maintain Amtrak service here. I would be delighted to speak with you in person regarding all of this as well, should you think that would be helpful to either of us. I would even be willing to give up a day of my pleasurable Amtrak commute this week or next to meet with you or anyone else you think could help with the cause. Please know that it is not just my ox that is getting gored. The ox belongs to Bensalem and to the future.
Richard L. Booth