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LV Passenger Rail Study: Philly Routes Would Utilize Line That’s Now Saucon Rail Trail

Saucon Rail Trail

The Saucon Rail Trail is located on a former Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) right-of-way that connected Bethlehem and the City of Brotherly Love by rail until 1979.

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A much-anticipated feasibility study that analyzes possible routes for passenger rail traffic between the Lehigh Valley and Philadelphia has a bit of a wrinkle in it for fans of a popular local rail trail.

The Saucon Rail Trail is located on a former Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) right-of-way that connected Bethlehem and the City of Brotherly Love by rail until 1979. Opened in May 2011, the Saucon Rail Trail and a connecting rail trail in upper Bucks County that opened nearly a decade later would both have to be repurposed from trails back to rails before trains can begin running again between SEPTA termini at Norristown or Lansdale and the Lehigh Valley, the 60-page PennDOT-commissioned study found. And that’s just one potential obstacle.

Rail Trail Trains

Reminders of the rail line that once delivered passenger and freight traffic to Hellertown and points south exist all along the Saucon Rail Trail. The trail opened in May 2011 on a SEPTA right-of-way under the terms of a 30-year lease. (FILE PHOTO)

“Of all former passenger rail corridors between Allentown and Philadelphia/New York, not a single one remains intact in its entirety,” the study’s authors noted in their executive summary. “Every corridor has had portions of the rail line removed and abandoned, with the formerly active railroad property sold and repurposed. Common uses of the former lines include rail trails, parks, roadway alignments, commercial development and private property. For new passenger services to be established where these conditions exist, property will need to be acquired.”

Passenger rail service between the area and New York City was discontinued in 1961, and much of the infrastructure that supported it is in heavy use by freight trains, such as three that were recently involved in a derailment along the Lehigh River in Lower Saucon Township.

The study also examined the feasibility of restoring passenger rail service between the Lehigh Valley and Reading, which it estimated would cost about $450 million.

That, however, is the cheapest of the five potential passenger rail routes identified by the study, which noted that a Reading-Allentown train would also be the least expensive route to operate, costing an estimated $2.2 million to $4.3 million a year.

Restoring service from Allentown to Lansdale would cost an estimated $635.8 million and restoring service from Allentown to Norristown would cost an estimated $739 million, with operating costs for both lines estimated at roughly $5 to $11 million per year. Listed under “Concerns” identified for both potential routes in a table in the report is the fact that “almost 12 miles of this route has had the track removed and been converted to public rail trails.”

Hellertown Station Train Trail

A photo shows SEPTA rail cars parked alongside the former Hellertown train station during the last years of rail service to the Lehigh Valley, which ended in 1979. The station, which was located on Front Street near Depot Street, was later demolished and an apartment building for seniors was constructed on the site. (FILE PHOTO)

According to the study, restoring service to New York City would cost less than restoring passenger service to Philadelphia–approximately $470 to $475 million–but annual operating costs would be considerably higher, at as much as $28.8 million per year if a route via Hackesttsown, N.J., is used. The other proposed route via High Bridge, N.J., would be slightly shorter and cost $16.5 to $20.1 million per year to operate, according to the study’s findings.

The estimated travel time via train from Allentown to Philadelphia via Lansdale if passenger rail service were to be restored along the former SEPTA line is one hour and 46 minutes, which is somewhat longer than the current typical travel time via car or bus. However, highway travel times between the Lehigh Valley and New York City or Philadelphia are often highly variable due to traffic, weather, road conditions and other factors.

Polling conducted in recent years as well as anecdotal evidence has suggested that many Lehigh Valley residents want to see the region’s rail links to nearby major cities restored. However, even if funding for one or more of the proposed routes is secured, the study concluded it will take a decade or longer before any trains leave local stations bound for either New York or Philadelphia.

It remains to be seen whether opposition would exist from residents and communities along the rail trails who have come to appreciate them for the pedestrian and bicycle access they provide.

The Saucon Rail Trail has been heralded as an asset that has brought economic benefits to Hellertown borough and other communities along it since it opened in 2011, after a 30-year lease with SEPTA was negotiated. The trail extends roughly seven miles from Hellertown to Coopersburg, where it connects to the Upper Bucks Rail Trail on the border between Bucks and Lehigh counties.

Plans exist to further extend the trails between Hellertown and the Bethlehem Greenway in the north and between Richland Township’s Veterans Park and Quakertown borough in the south. Just last fall, Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro visited Bethlehem to announce $500,000 in funding that will be used for the construction of the missing trail link between the Greenway and Hellertown.

Train routes

A map that is part of the Lehigh Valley Passenger Rail Feasibility Analysis depicts five potential routes for the redevelopment of passenger rail service to and from the Lehigh Valley. Two would connect the area to New York City, two would connect it to Philadelphia and one route would connect the area to Reading. (Credit: Lehigh Valley Passenger Rail Feasibility Analysis)


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About the author

Josh Popichak

Josh Popichak is the owner, publisher and editor of Saucon Source. A Lehigh Valley native, he's covered local news since 2005 and previously worked for Berks-Mont News and AOL/Patch. Contact him at

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