Amtrak to Chicago: Advocates hope train service can grow from limited options Cincinnati has now

CINCINNATI -- It's the last remaining portion of Union Terminal's original use, but many today don't even know it's there.

Tucked behind the now under-construction Cincinnati Museum Center is the city's access point to Amtrak, the country's primary regional and long-distance passenger railroad service.

The station is a modestly sized version of the terminal in its heyday, which originally was designed to accommodate more than 200 trains and some 17,000 passengers each day. Today -- secondary to housing the museum center -- the station serves only a fraction of the railroads and passengers it once did, with just three arrivals and departures scheduled each week.

But there is a growing conversation in the region to change that.

Part of that effort is raising awareness that the train is an option when traveling from Cincinnati to other major metropolitan areas like New York, Washington, D.C. and -- most closely -- Indianapolis and Chicago.

That's according to Derek Bauman, southwest Ohio's regional director of the public transit advocacy group, All Aboard Ohio. He and other stakeholders have been working for the last few years to boost Amtrak service in Greater Cincinnati.

"(Three days per week is) absolutely not enough," Bauman told WCPO. "Really we need multiple trains per day, particularly to Chicago."

But a quick, unofficial Twitter poll of 125 local users last fall showed that about as many people are in favor of increased service as there are people who didn't even know passenger trains came through Cincinnati:

'Where are you from?'

The most common question you'll hear on an Amtrak train: "So, where are you from?" according to Cincinnati-based Amtrak user Mike Bend. Bend uses Amtrak a few times a year, he said. This includes taking Amtrak's Cardinal Line from Cincinnati to Chicago, and then connecting to other Amtrak lines from there.

That's because, unlike traveling by air or bus, the Cardinal Line actually extends from Chicago all the way to New York via other major metropolitan areas like Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. after making its way through more rural areas in Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia. That means passengers are embarking and disembarking all along the line: Departure locations and destinations vary widely among the fellow passengers riders will encounter along the trip.

Amtrak's Cardinal Line, which serves Cincinnati's Union Terminal three days a week. (Provided)

The riding experience out of Union Terminal begins a bit on the darker side -- literally. The Cardinal departs Union Terminal toward Chicago, for instance, at 1:41 a.m., early Monday, Thursday and Saturday mornings. It's then an approximately eight- to nine-hour trip, pulling into Chicago's Union Station around 10 a.m. CST, with about an hour layover in Indianapolis.

The time isn't the only less-than-convenient element of the boarding process, at least while the building is going under renovations for the next year or more. This makes where passengers need to go less obvious, but there is a public safety officer at the main entrance that will escort riders around the construction zones to the waiting area and boarding platform.

Pricing will vary depending on availability and destination, but can go as low as about $50 one-way from Cincinnati to Chicago. The lowest pricing tier will get riders a coach seat with access to the dining and lounge car. Those willing to spring for more can get a private "sleeper" room, which provides two bunk-style beds. There is also a newly introduced business class, which provides nicer seating and slightly more leg room (although, leg room in coach is ample, even for the taller folks).

Heading east, toward Washington and New York, is a bigger investment, in both time and cost: The trip from Cincinnati to Washington, D.C. can take up to 14 hours.

Bob Johnson, of Columbus, boards the Amtrak Cardinal Line at Union Terminal in Cincinnati, Feb. 23, 2017. (Eric Clajus/WCPO)

For Amtrak user Bob Johnson -- formerly of Cincinnati, now living in Columbus -- the length of the trip is part of the train's appeal.

"It's very relaxing, the scenery is fantastic," he told WCPO while waiting on the Union Terminal platform, Chicago-bound. "I kind of laugh -- we live in such a fast society today, the train kind of slows us down and forces us to relax.

"It's the relaxed nature of it. It's just a slower, almost like going back in time mode of travel. It has kind of a romance to it," he said. "It's neat to get up and there's all new scenery, and you wake up in a new place."

And then there is the variety of people you will meet on these long-distance routes like the Cardinal Line, Bend said, particularly while in the dining car, where parties will be seated together at communal tables. He described one trip when some Amish passengers, headed toward South Portsmouth, Kentucky, began singing hymns together on the train, as part of their daily devotional practice.

Regardless of faith, "Everyone was just mesmerized," Bend said. "These are the kinds of things that just happen.

"If you want to avoid people, fly," he said. "People on (the train) tend to be sociable."

'We're just disconnected'

Bauman and other rail advocates say Ohio is one of the most underserved markets for passenger railroad service in the country, and there's some evidence to support his claim.

The Cardinal is one of only a few long-distance routes that does not offer daily service -- a topic discussed at an Amtrak-led conference last fall, hosted by the Cincinnati USA Chamber of Commerce.

At that conference, Amtrak government affairs and communications specialist Charlie Monte Verde called the Cardinal "the underdog."

Looking at a map of daily passenger railroad service in the Midwest shows a drought in the Buckeye State:

Amtrak routes offering daily service throughout the Midwest. (Provided)

"It hasn't been a really strong option for people because it only runs a few days a week, and the time isn't that great," Bauman said. 

That said, three-day-a-week passenger rail service isn't the thinnest Cincinnati has seen: The Cardinal Line was a result of combining two separate lines in 1977, six years after the formation of Amtrak. But it would only take four years for Amtrak to suspend service along the route. It would be another year after that before then-West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd successfully advocated for its reinstatement. Service was halted out of Union Terminal throughout much of the 1980s, but then revived in the early 1990s.

Daily service has yet to return to Union Terminal.

"Here in Cincinnati we're just disconnected, and part of the problem is that we don't really know what we're missing because we don't have it," Bauman said.

Turning around

During September's Cardinal Conference, Morrell Savoy, deputy manager of Amtrak's Long Distance Business Line division, elaborated on how the story of the Cardinal is an unlikely one.

"Usually we see, once (a rail line is gone), it doesn't come back," he said.

But Amtrak officials and rail advocates alike say they feel optimistic about the Cardinal Line's future, for several reasons, not the least being that the city of Oxford, Ohio, and its resident college, Miami University both committed $350,000 toward the construction of a new stop platform along the route.

"It's an investment in the future, in the economy of Oxford," said Oxford Mayor Kate Rousmaniere.

She said demand for train service in the rural, Butler County college town has been long-lived: "I've lived in this town for 24 years, and ever since I moved here people have been asking for years about the train."

"Millennials don't want to drive like they used to," Bauman said. "It's certainly a market that Amtrak is looking at."

Amtrak officials said they anticipate a stop in Oxford will mean boosted ridership, a necessity if the Cardinal is ever to see daily service.

"It's certainly going to be ridership positive. That's why we're doing it," Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari told WCPO in a previous interview. "It makes good sense."

Johnson said daily service out of Union Terminal would mean he would ride more often.

"I would probably take the train more often. I really wish there was a train going from Columbus to here," he said.

Moving forward, Bauman said that to attain what he called the "incremental costs" involved in moving toward daily Cardinal service, it will take a combination of targeting local, state and federal funds -- but mostly federal, since the line connects nearly 10 states.

The costs are "incremental," he said, because the infrastructure -- the tracks and the cars -- are already in place, estimating about $2-4 million in additional funding needed to cover increased operations and management costs.

For Johnson, Amtrak remains all about the experience: "I think it's kind of a trip of a lifetime. If you have the chance to take it, do it."

Pat LaFleur reports on transportation for WCPO. Connect with him on Twitter (@pat_laFleur).

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