If you've got tickets on Amtrak's Capitol Limited to points east of Pittsburgh on or after July 24, be prepared for a bus ride, rather than a train ride, across the Allegheny Mountains and on to Washington.
CSX, which owns the tracks Amtrak uses between Pittsburgh and Washington, is about to start major work to enlarge four tunnels on its rails along the Potomac River in West Virginia and Maryland. It's all part of the National Gateway project to allow freight trains carrying "double-stacked" cargo containers to travel between the East Coast and the Midwest, including CSX's huge new terminal near North Baltimore.
But to do this work, CSX plans to set up "work windows" on Sundays through Thursdays during which train traffic through the tunnels will be significantly delayed, or even suspended at times. Because of this, Amtrak has decided that if the eastbound Capitol Limited is 90 minutes or more late when it arrives at Pittsburgh on construction days, the train will terminate at Cumberland, Maryland, and passengers destined for stations east of Cumberland will be transferred to buses at Pittsburgh.
This plan is scheduled to be in effect for 13 months. The westbound Capitol Limited from Washington to Pittsburgh, Toledo, and Chicago will not be affected.
For passengers boarding in Indiana or Ohio the night before, the potential bus-titution should be a minor inconvenience at worst. The eastbound train is due into Pittsburgh at 4:35 a.m., so if the train only slightly misses the 90-minute cutoff, that could mean a 6 a.m. wakeup call for travelers who might have preferred to sleep in a bit later into the morning. If I were travelling in a sleeping compartment and got rousted like that, I'd ask for a refund of part of my accommodation charge to compensate for the disruption, especially if it also meant I lost my complimentary dining-car breakfast. Because of the train's slow speeds through the serpentine Youghiogheny River valley and over the Alleghenies, the bus trip from Pittsburgh to Washington will probably be faster than the train, albeit at the loss of river and mountain scenery that the Pennsylvania Turnpike and I-70 just can't match.
But if I lived in Connellsville, Pa., or other Capitol Limited stations east of Pittsburgh, there's no way I'd buy a ticket for a departure Sunday through Thursday for as long as this is going on. That's because Amtrak has announced that passengers with reservations east of Pittsburgh simply won't be accommodated on days the train terminates at Cumberland. Amtrak told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that in those cases, travelers will be offered tickets on the next day's train. They'll be notified sometime during the wee hours if Amtrak expects to cancel service.
Not even considering the thrill of a 3 a.m. phone call to tell me I have no ride, that's not an offer I'd be eager to take, especially considering the risk that the next day's train will also be affected. Because while Amtrak's spokesman cheerfully told the P-G that the Capitol Limited being late is a "rare event," Amtrak's own statistics show otherwise. It surely isn't 90 minutes late all, or even most, of the time, but 20 percent last month and 42 percent for the past year inspires little confidence for any random day, especially when Amtrak's standards define a long-distance train like the Cap to be on-time if it reaches its endpoint within 30 minutes of schedule, and the schedule includes 40 minutes of padding before Washington. On the plus side, it also has a fair amount of padding into Pittsburgh, so a 90-minutes-late departure from Toledo may not necessarily mean a bus transfer later on -- there's opportunity for the train to make up time along the way.