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Little Somerset town has big hopes for train stop

Amtrak could deliver bicyclists, skiiers to Rockwood

Sunday, October 28, 2001

By Tom Gibb, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

ROCKWOOD -- Thirty years after this little town lost passenger train service, it's lobbying Amtrak to stop here again.

Although it would seem unlikely that the Somerset County town, a place 46 shy of 1,000 people, could win a stop from the financially troubled railroad, the idea is getting widespread support.

Judy Pletcher and her family nursed the Rockwood Mill Shoppes & Opera House, a century-old mill and opera house, to life last year as a theater and a collection of 23 small retailers in Rockwood, Somerset County. The building is 50 feet from the railroad tracks that run through town and is a prime spot for a train station if Amtrak approves a stop for the community. (V.W.H. Campbell Jr., Post-Gazette)

"I think it'd be huge!" said Bruce Dwyer, a Washington, D.C., bicycling advocacy group volunteer who figures that he and a lot of fellow enthusiasts would gladly hop a train to Rockwood just to pedal home.

"It's got a ton of potential," said Robert Duppstadt, spokesman for nearby Seven Springs Mountain Resort, one potential beneficiary.

"It'll happen," said Hank Parke, executive director of the Somerset County Chamber of Commerce and the prime lobbyist for the notion.

And Parke figures it could happen as soon as next summer.

It's not that Rockwood, 65 miles southeast of Pittsburgh and nine miles southwest of Somerset, suddenly fancies itself a commerce center.

But an estimated 50,000 bicyclists a year pedal by on the Allegheny Highlands Trail, part of the 100-mile trail between Pittsburgh and southeast Somerset County.

Get an average winter and more than 450,000 skiers will ski the slopes of Seven Springs and nearby Hidden Valley Four Seasons Resort, both within 10 miles of Rockwood. Year-round, more than 1 million people visit the area.

And every day, through the middle of all that comes Amtrak's Capitol Limited, a Washington, D.C.-to-Chicago passenger train -- maybe 21/2 hours to Rockwood from Pittsburgh, about 41/2 hours from Washington's Union Station.

For now, the closest passenger stops for the Capitol, the only passenger train rolling through Rockwood, are Connellsville, about 40 miles of train track to the west, and Cumberland, Md., a 50-mile ride east.

Stop a train at Rockwood, though, and Parke sees cyclists disembarking with their cycles or skiers hopping off the train and onto shuttle buses bound for Hidden Valley and Seven Springs.

"I think it might start slow," Dupp-stadt said, "but it'll build."

"I don't know how many people we're talking," Parke said. "If we were talking the potential for just a couple of people a day, we wouldn't be doing this."

Somerset County was excited enough that when it turned in its latest 12-year transit wish list to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, construction of a Rockwood passenger station came from nowhere to be ranked No. 3, only behind construction of four-lane Route 219 to the Maryland line and corrections to a deadly highway intersection near Somerset.

"It's No. 3 because of seeing Amtrak and seeing that they're interested," said Brad Zearfoss, Somerset County planner.

Just getting Amtrak's ear is considered a victory.

What with its shallow pockets, the passenger rail service needs a money pit, even a shallow one, about as much as it needs a bull moose on the tracks.

In 1990, the Rockwood idea came up, and Amtrak buried it.

In 1995, the suggestion was resurrected and buried again.

This time, Amtrak is already stopping the train at Rockwood for a five-minute crew change and figures that letting passengers on and off might extend that five minutes more.

And this time, Parke and allies have a better package to wave in front of railroad officials.

For starters, there's the understanding that anybody but Amtrak will pick up the tab, maybe $500,000 or so, for building a station. And along with the promise of the ski trade, there's the bike trail. The link to Pittsburgh has recently been completed, and eventually it will be at the heart of a 400-mile scenic adventure between Pittsburgh and Washington.

"You get a group in Washington, you're in Pennsylvania with your bike a few hours later, then you have all day Saturday, Sunday and then Monday to ride home. It's the perfect long weekend," said David Dionne, chairman of the East Coast Greenway Alliance, a group that last month forged an agreement making it easier for cyclists to get their gear on trains connecting Eastern Seaboard bike paths.

"You put the train there, and these people will come. They'll come out of the woodwork. And the nice thing is that this a group that just leaves a trail of that nasty green money behind."

So, Amtrak listened -- and listened hard enough that local businesswoman Judy Pletcher called the outlook "favorable."

"I can't say we're 95 percent sure or that we're 50 percent sure," said William Lerch, general manager of Amtrak's Eastern Business Group, one of the in-house tribunals that will mull the idea. "But with Seven Springs and everything, we're very interested in the possibility."

"It all comes down to whether it's financially viable," Amtrak spokes-man Kevin Johnson said.

Those determinations might be several months away.

The financial bar might not be very high, though.

"It doesn't take much to make it worth Amtrak's while if it's a case that the train is already stopping and the town is going to pay for the station," said Ross Capon, executive director of the National Association of Railroad Passengers.

The route, which is along the Youghiogheny River, into the barely settled mountains around Fairhope in eastern Somerset County, down to the Potomac River and past historic Harper's Ferry, W. Va., is a top-flight ride, no matter where the rider is bound, Capon said.

The Rockwood stop, though, probably wouldn't be a big draw for the Pittsburgh area, close enough that a Monroeville-to-Somerset ride across the Pennsylvania Turnpike is a 90-minute trip, even for the Type B personality.

But enthusiasts figure that a Rockwood stop would bring riders from the Washington, D.C., region, which provides an estimated half of Seven Springs' overnight guests -- as many as 700 people on a winter weekend.

No matter where they come from, the notion of a Rockwood train stop warms the hearts of people like local historian Betty Arnold, who rode the line, then a Baltimore & Ohio Railroad train, to Cumberland when she was married in 1948.

"We do figure that if the train stops here again, it'll be a special thing," she said.

In figuring the financial equations behind making that work, it's not just Amtrak's money that everybody is talking about.

The passenger railroad would staff a small station here, probably in the Rockwood Mill Shoppes & Opera House, a century-old mill and opera house that slept through a protracted near-death experience before Pletcher and family nursed it to life last year as a theater and a collection of 23 small retailers.

The back of the building is but 50 feet from the tracks.

But it would be up to somebody else, not Amtrak, to build the station and the train platforms.

And there's not a lot of leeway on how to do that. Amtrak has passed along specs that say the platforms on both sides of the tracks would have to be 700 feet long, 8 inches above the rail, 12 feet wide, lighted, handicapped-accessible and paved in asphalt, concrete or brick.

County planner Zearfoss has been dispatched on a money hunt that will stretch from PennDOT to private foundations.

But Parke is optimistic enough that he talks about a spring construction start and a summer commencement of train service.

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