On Track

Advocates find diverse allies in the push for convenient rail service between Cincinnati and Chicago

click to enlarge Many Midwestern cities have daily rail routes to Chicago, a transportation hub. Cincinnati does not.
Many Midwestern cities have daily rail routes to Chicago, a transportation hub. Cincinnati does not.

W

hen Cincinnati City Councilwoman Amy Murray and her husband wanted to take a cross-country train trip to a wedding in Lake Tahoe this spring, they found planning most of their route easy. Ridership on Amtrak, the nation’s publicly funded, for-profit rail operation, has skyrocketed in recent years, and the company offers a popular route from Chicago to Sacramento, California. The biggest problem was getting from the Queen City to the Windy City. Amtrak does offer a route, the Cardinal Line, departing from Union Terminal, but it only runs three times a week, and it leaves at 3:30 a.m. 

That’s hardly an ideal way to start a cross-country trip, let alone a quick business jaunt or weekend getaway. But the Cleveland-based All Aboard Ohio, led in Cincinnati by transit advocate Derek Bauman, has been working since May to build consensus around the idea of daily, speedy routes running between Cincinnati and Chicago, a major rail hub. Though there are still years of groundwork and political pushing ahead, the effort has attracted surprisingly diverse supporters. Bauman and the group have started building a coalition of local governments, politicians and transit advocates with an all-business, common sense pitch: Other cities in the Midwest already offer daily rail service to Chicago. If Cincinnati doesn’t, it will get left behind economically.

“We live our daily lives here inside the 275 loop, and folks just don’t know what’s going on elsewhere,” Bauman said at a well-attended All Aboard Ohio meeting in Over-the-Rhine Oct. 18.

St. Louis, for instance, has five round trips a day to Chicago. Detroit has four. Many other medium-sized cities in the region have at least daily service, some two or three times a day.

“And then you have Cincinnati down here all by itself,” Bauman said.

Bauman says All Aboard Ohio is focused on rallying support for an incremental approach to building quick daily rail service to Chicago. Eventually, that could mean trains traveling up to 110 mph and reaching the city in something like four hours, instead of the standard eight it currently takes. But that’s the end point. Right now, the group is focused on creating agreement on the need, studying routes to find out more about the costs and challenges involved in the project and getting a working route up and running that can be improved later.

The group is especially focused on two possible paths along existing tracks. One heads north from Union Terminal, roughly along the route the Cardinal Line travels now, going through Hamilton, Oxford and other cities. Another, lesser-used line heads south along the Ohio River before passing through Lawrenceburg, Indiana.

Both would eventually hook up with Indianapolis on the way to Chicago. Both also present unique challenges. The northern line runs along heavily used track and could experience congestion. For the southern line to work, a once-existent section of track that carried trains out of the basin long ago needs rebuilt. Both will also call for negotiations with private rail companies currently using the lines for freight, which is a big issue — rail lines have dwindled since the height of train travel last century, and with rail becoming popular again for both shipping and commuting, rail real-state is becoming scarce, leading to train delays in heavy-traffic areas like Ohio’s northern corridor along the Great Lakes.

Despite the obstacles, All Aboard Ohio has garnered support from city governments along prospective routes, including Cincinnati, Wyoming and Hamilton. The group has also found some unexpected allies.

Murray is City Council’s chair of Major Transportation and Regional Cooperation, just the kind of player you would want on your side if you were working on a long, complex multi-state transit project. But she’s a Republican at a time when the state party hasn’t been kind to rail. What’s more, last year Murray and Bauman found themselves on opposite sides of another rail issue: Cincinnati’s streetcar.

Murray opposed the project, while Bauman was one of its most vocal advocates. But Murray is fired up for the idea of a quick train from here to Chicago and has been working to get local business leaders on board with the idea. Her trip this spring only underscored the need for more rail options, she says.

“I wasn’t really willing to get up at two in the morning and haul down to Union Terminal and take a train that might take eight or nine hours,” Murray said, recalling her spring trip at All Aboard Ohio’s first Cincinnati meeting Nov. 18. She and her husband ended up taking the Megabus to Chicago and catching Amtrak there.

Transit projects like extended rail lines are usually a progressive cause. But support from Murray and Hamilton County’s two Republican commissioners is a sign that establishing a daily Cincinnati-Chicago route could have some serious bipartisan legs.

“When we sat down with guys who you wouldn’t typically think would be pro rail, when we laid out this business case, that we’re not connected, and you’re seeing other cities connecting this way, it really got their attention,” Bauman says of meetings with the county commissioners.

The two joined Democrat Commissioner Todd Portune to pass a resolution in September supporting a feasibility study for the idea. The board asked the Ohio Kentucky Indiana Regional Council of Governments, headed by Portune, to undertake the $150,000 study to gather more details about possibilities for running more routes to Chicago. Portune called the vote “a bold move forward toward creating multiple transit options for the people of Greater Cincinnati that in turn will become the catalyst for jobs and development in the OKI region.”

In September, the Indiana Passenger Rail Association, a group similar to All Aboard Ohio, announced it was raising funds for a similar feasibility study for the route in that state.

The bipartisan support may seem surprising at first, given the state GOP’s attitude toward transit projects, especially rail-based ones. But there is precedent. Michigan and Indiana have much more active routes to Chicago, despite having similarly conservative state governments.

Ohio still has a way to go. Since 2000, Ohio has reduced its transit funding by 83 percent. And in 2011, Governor John Kasich refused $400 million from the federal government to build the so-called 3C Corridor, a rail route connecting Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland. Kasich also pulled $53 million in state money for Cincinnati’s streetcar.

“The wind was taken out of our sails after the 3C rail got taken away,” Bauman says of All Aboard Ohio. Advocates regrouped, he says, and realized the Cincinnati-Chicago route was an attractive project to push.

The OKI feasibility study would be the first step in a long process. Next on the agenda, Bauman says, is getting buy-in from area universities, which traditionally have been big supporters of rail projects in other states.

All Aboard Ohio met with Amtrak officials and representatives from Miami University Nov. 24 to discuss the possibility of a stop near the school. Organizers are also working to get University of Cincinnati and Xavier interested in the idea. ©

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