Derailed

One of the main long-distance transportation options for Muhlenberg, Bieber bus, simply stopped running all buses midday last Friday. They gave no advance notice to passengers or to the bus drivers. In addition to leaving customers at the curb, the company closed with “$7 million in loan defaults, health care and pension obligations, taxes and more, according to federal, state and county court records,” as reported by The Morning Call.

Once the initial chaos died down, it left many people wondering: what other transportation options are there to get to New York or Philly? The answer is: surprisingly not much, at least in terms of bus companies.

Muhlenberg has certainly provided its students with many opportunities to get around Allentown- including buses provided by the Lehigh and Northampton Transportation Authority (LANTA) and Zagster bikes, the latter of which has been put away until the weather is better.

While it is not Muhlenberg’s responsibility to provide transportation to students to New York or Philly, it is frustrating that it is advertised as “close” when, in reality, students can’t easily get to those cities. Certainly, Muhlenberg’s career center makes a point of bringing students to these cities for jobs, in addition to Washington, D.C. Jobs that nearly half of the class of 2023 will have no easy access to without a private transportation option- making it a frustrating choice for students who either can’t afford to drive themselves while in school, don’t have the time or simply aren’t comfortable driving that far.  

And now, with Bieber bus shut down, there is one less option for students who either can’t drive or are uncomfortable traveling that far.

Maybe the answer could be found not in the honk of a bus horn or the clink of a bike chain, but in the blow of a steam whistle. That’s right – passenger trains.  

Allentown is the third largest city in Pennsylvania, after Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. So why isn’t there a rail line from Allentown to the two biggest cities in the Northeast? Especially given Muhlenberg’s website proudly boasting that its campus is fewer “than 90 miles west of New York City and 50 miles north of Philadelphia,” and considering the number of staff and students who come from out of state, it’s surprising how difficult it can be to catch a ride on public transport to either of those two cities.

So why is there no train service from Allentown to Philly? The answer is: There is one. It’s just not open to passengers.

In 2015, Amtrak tried to run a single train from Allentown to Bethlehem to Easton to New Jersey, a plan which – The Morning Call aptly reported- was later “derailed.”

There is a single line of track running between Allentown and Manhattan, which is owned by Norfolk Southern Corporation. In 2017, Randy Husband, the company’s spokesperson, told the Morning Call: “We just can’t muck it up with passenger trains.”

“Such a route would have to use Norfolk Southern’s lucrative Lehigh Line,” reported The Morning Call. “ A single track line with 30 to 45 trains a day running on a strict schedule that is too tight to be interrupted by passenger traffic, [Husband] said.”

Kirk D. Raup has been working since 1992 to bring rail service to the Lehigh Valley- which is longer than most students here have been alive. And what’s stopped him is millions of dollars- not just in studies, but in building materials and supplies. Assembly of the line would take over ten years of construction, and be what one writer to The Morning Call likened to one of FDR’s New Deal projects.   

A 2010 study predicted the project would cost $658 million.

PennDot currently plans to spend $228 million in the next four years on railway maintenance– a single percent of the $21 billion to be spent on other modes of transportation. The money, it appears, is there.

We are, afterall, spending several billion on another piece of infrastructure now. What’s the harm in spending a little more, with a lot more practicality?

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