I. The Problem
Amtrak Plans Bensalem Pullout for October.
Though publicly showing no intent to stop all Amtrak
service to the Cornwells Heights station in Bensalem, Amtrak’s public relations
arm privately admitted on August 12th that behind closed doors the
decision has been made to cease all Amtrak service to Bensalem in October.
1: Amtrak correspondence confirming Bensalem
October pullout, dated August 12.
2: Follow-up note from Amtrak stating that the decision
has already been made.
3: Online Bensalem-to-New York schedules showing Bensalem service increasing.
4: Online New York-to-Bensalem schedules showing Bensalem service increasing.
II. Why Save It?
“CON” Answer: Because after eight years of operation,
ridership remains low.
“PRO” Answer: Because remediable, unaddressed issues are the root of the
If the issues are identified and properly addressed,
ridership can grow quickly and benefit the Lower Bucks and
Northeast Philadelphia areas economically.
to Bensalem mayor Joseph DiGirolamo detailing the Amtrak problem,
slightly edited from its original
form to remove personally identifiable
information concerning other Amtrak
to Bucks County Congressman Michael Fitzpatrick regarding same, also
edited from the original.
Item 3: Original
Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission announcement of the
Bensalem Amtrak service along with the opening of the Cornwells
Heights 1,600-space free
Park-and-Ride in November 1997.
III. Flying Below the Radar: Times 5
1: New York commuters are completely unaware
of the existence of the convenient Cornwells Heights Amtrak commuting
stop. The publicly available Northeast
Corridor schedules and maps available to New Yorkers in Manhattan’s Penn
Station do not even show that Cornwells Heights exists. The publicly available schedules and maps
are printed by New Jersey Transit.
We are off the schedule; off the map; off the radar.
2: Pennsylvania’s highly subsidized 11 Amtrak
Keystone trains provide 6 to 11 daily trains to New York City from 11 cities
west of Philadelphia all the way out to Harrisburg. All of them travel through the Cornwells Heights station. The one Keystone train that currently stops
will just pass on through in October.
3: Amtrak is canceling all Bensalem service
without the consultation of local government and planning agencies or consumer
feedback, and apparently without even trying to understand what happened to
derail the once projected rapid ridership growth of the station. Bensalem’s commuters have yet to be
officially notified of the impending closure.
Still, as of September 5, 2005, Amtrak’s online schedule boasts
increased service to Bensalem coming on October 31st. Telephone calls to Amtrak inquiring about
rumors of closure reveal nothing.
Repurposing just one Keystone train as a stopgap measure could save the
Cornwells Heights New York City commuting station from extinction.
4: Only a small percentage of the population
of Bensalem is aware that Bensalem has Amtrak service connecting it directly to
Manhattan in as little as one hour (actually measured at 59 minutes, when 3
minutes ahead of schedule, sometimes on the current Keystone out of
Manhattan). Many Bensalem residents are
unsure where “Cornwells Heights” is, and do not realize it is part of Bensalem
and an old name for a section of same.
5. There are no Amtrak schedules posted at
the Cornwells Heights station. There
are none in racks. The station office has none. I asked the station agent, a very helpful and friendly woman who
has served the station since before the Park-and-Ride was built, why there were
no Amtrak schedules or any other form of Amtrak information at the
station. She replied, “Well, Amtrak
used to send me the schedules from time to time, but they just quit sending
them about two years ago. I don’t know
why.” She is employed by SEPTA, not
Amtrak. As for service to New York, she
thought, “There’s only one at 8:10.”
She had no knowledge of the more popular 6:55 train; she is not tasked
to. As for south-bound Amtrak service,
she knew that some trains stop there after she closes the station at 1 p.m.
every day, but had no idea how many or when.
Amtrak at the Cornwells Heights station is even off its own radar.
Item 1: The only
schedule available in the public schedule racks at Manhattan’s
Pennsylvania Station on August 19th, 2005
and again on August 26th.
Supplied by New Jersey
Transit, the schedule ends at Trenton. (The more complete Amtrak Northeast Corridor
Cornwells Heights, was available
only in areas reserved for Acela, or by specific
request from an Amtrak
Item 2: The only commuter route map available in
Manhattan’s Penn Station covering trains traveling
outbound through New Jersey. The portion showing Trenton-to-Philadelphia service does not
even show that Cornwells Heights exists.
Item 3: The only publicly
available printed evidence of the existence of Cornwells Heights in
Manhattan’s Pennsylvania Station, a Harrisburg-Lancaster-Philadelphia-New
York sheet, found in
a rack about 75 yards from the Amtrak ticket
windows. It lists one train a day to
New York from
IV. Keystones Servicing Pennsylvania
There are 11 Amtrak trains which leave Harrisburg for New York City each
weekday. Three of them require
switching to another Amtrak train at Philadelphia. Eight make the entire physical run from Harrisburg to New York.
All pass through Bensalem’s Cornwells Heights station. One stops.
Of the 13 Pennsylvania cities serviced by the 11 Keystones, all receive at
least 6 trains stopping every day, except for Bensalem, which receives only
one, and that is to be cancelled in October.
Repurposing just one of the Keystones off the Harrisburg-to-Philadelphia
portion of its run could give Cornwells Heights twice-daily New York City
service in both directions and so preserve for future growth the
Bensalem-Bucks-Northeast Philadelphia community of New York City commuters.
Item 1: The Keystone schedule.
V. Economics and New York Commuting
The Trenton Amtrak station services hundreds of daily New York commuters,
almost none of whom live in Trenton.
Cornwells Heights is 11 minutes from Trenton by just staying on Amtrak
instead of getting off the train.
Trenton commuters hardly know this at all. With the overhead of parking and the drive to and from Trenton,
the Cornwells Heights station actually offers Lower Bucks and Northeast
Philadelphia commuters a superior way to live in a good location with fresh,
new, upscale housing – as good as or better than commuting through Trenton, in
The large majority of Cornwells Heights commuters [numbering about 50 per
day before April’s Acela total collapse in April cut the number of Cornwells
Heights trains to New York in half, reducing ridership to about 40 due to loss
of the earliest 5:56 train] will each have to drive nearly 8,000 extra miles
per year and spend an average of about an extra $2,000 to cross the Delaware
out of the state to Trenton, New Jersey in order to keep their full time jobs
in New York. Parking at Cornwells
Heights, with its own exit off I-95, is free.
Eight hundred parking spots go unused there every day.
New construction in New Jersey – outside Trenton, but with a more difficult
commute than Bensalem’s riders have – is selling for prices comparable to
Bensalem’s new developments. At one
such community under construction, sales agents reported “gobs” of New York
commuters buying homes there, estimated by one agent at about 1 in every 5 new
homes sold. In Bensalem, the new
Belmont Ridge development reports no known New York commuters, and the
Wellington Estates development, offering over 200 new luxury homes within two
miles and not more than five easy minutes of the train station door-to-door,
reports only one sale to a New York commuter, and he reportedly plans to commute
through the Trenton station (probably because he doesn’t know that Amtrak stops
within two miles of his new home, or perhaps, if he has managed to discover the
Amtrak station in his very back yard, because Amtrak’s recently decimated
schedule cannot now meet his commuting needs).
1: Web site of Bensalem’s
Wellington Estates development.
2: Web site of Bensalem’s
Belmont Ridge development.
Web site of suburban Trenton’s Cross
VI. Taking a Gamble
Bensalem is slated to soon become home to racino gambling and thousands of
slot machines at the former home of Smarty Jones, Philadelphia Park, ten minutes
from the Cornwells Heights station by any future shuttle bus the casinos might
wish to run.
New Yorkers, many of whom lack cars, can take public transportation to a
number of different gambling venues, but the one that is (or soon will be)
closest to midtown Manhattan, by a factor of two or more, is Bensalem. Without Amtrak, there is no such link. (Put another way, one should not gamble on
New Yorkers gambling in Bensalem without Amtrak.)
1: Comparative public
transportation times and fares for New York gamblers.
VII. The Name of the Game
No one in New York City knows where “Cornwells Heights” is. Almost no one in Philadelphia does
either. For that matter, most of the
people in the former Cornwells Heights (a former Bensalem postal address, not
actively used since the Bensalem postal consolidation of 1979) do not know
where Cornwells Heights is. It is the
name of a town that can no longer be found on most modern maps. You can’t ride a train if you can’t find it.
Changing the station name to “Bensalem” would at least ring a geographic
bell with Philadelphians and give them a clue as to where to find the station.
Changing the name to “Bucks Bensalem” would ring bells in the ears of New
Yorkers familiar with the many good things Bucks County stands for. It also alliterates well.
Perhaps half the reason that the Cornwells Heights Park-and-Ride has flown
under the radar for nearly eight years is that the name is a locationless
enigma. Making it a New York commuting
outpost with a more easily recognizable name is likely to do great economic
1: Google’s top-ranked web page for “Cornwells
Google’s top-ranked web page for “Bensalem.”
Item 3: Google’s
top-ranked web page for “Bucks County.”
VIII. Roadmap to Recovery
These are my personal suggestions for keeping Amtrak service in Bensalem,
and for growing it.
1: Call a timeout before Amtrak publicly declares Bensalem service
doomed. (Preventing Amtrak from
“pulling the trigger” heads off the more difficult battle for a
retraction.) Current news stories about
the station’s demise are all derived from a Bucks County Courier Times
investigation which I myself instigated.
Online Amtrak schedules and calls to 1-800-USA-RAIL, as of September 5th,
2005, still claim that the station will survive indefinitely into the
future. To paraphrase Mark Twain,
reports of Cornwells Heights’ death have been greatly exaggerated.
2: Work out the politics, the funding, and the general reasonableness of
continued Bensalem service with Amtrak, including commitments by local
government and commercial agencies to do their part to grow awareness and
ridership. Find a way to get onto the
printed maps and schedules in Penn Station.
(At minimum, place promotional brochures and maps at New York and
Northeast Corridor stations.)
3: Restore Bensalem service at least to the level it was at until the
spring of this year when the breakdown of all Acela trains pulled half the
Bensalem trains off their old routes.
(Getting back to 4 daily trains into New York City instead of the
4. Find a way to finance an upgrade to the New York-bound waiting
facilities in Bensalem (pictured in Item 2).
More seating capacity, better shelter from storm, and perhaps a sanitary
facility of some sort would help, and would also help convince New Yorkers that
we’re a serious commuting site.
5. Rename the station and the Park-and-Ride with the dual purpose of
helping others understand where the station is, and enhancing the distant public’s
imaginings of Bensalem’s station. First
choice: “Bucks Bensalem” (plays well in New York, alliterates better that
“Bensalem Bucks”); Second choice: “Bensalem”.
1: Picture of Bensalem’s Philadelphia-bound
waiting area, with heated ticket office.
2: Picture of Bensalem’s New
York-bound waiting area, with an open bench for 4.