Rail advocates: 'Coalition' a must for bringing more passenger rail to Cincy

CINCINNATI -- Transit leaders joined elected and government officials from throughout the Midwest at the new Cincinnati USA Chamber of Commerce offices Downtown Friday for a rail conference that could have been called "It Takes a Village."

Coalition-building was the central theme of the Amtrak Cardinal Conference, an effort to discuss ways of enhancing Amtrak passenger railroad service along the region's primary rail corridor, the Cardinal Line. The 26.5-hour, 1,146-mile Cardinal runs out of Union Terminal three days a week, connecting Cincinnati most commonly to Chicago, but it can also convey passengers all the way to New York via Washington, D.C.:

Provided by Amtrak

Amtrak Senior Specialist in Government Affairs Charlie Monte Verde, who works out of Amtrak's Chicago office -- also served by the Cardinal Line -- organized Friday's conference, which hosted local leaders, nonprofit organizers and railroad executives, along with their counterparts from across Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, West Virginia, Virginia and Washington D.C.

"There's an incomparable community-contrast along the route," he said during his opening remarks, describing the mix of urban and rural locations with stops along the line.

He also describes the line as "the underdog."

A troubled past 

The Cardinal's had a bumpy go throughout its nearly 40-year history.

The rail line was the combination of two pre-existing lines that were connected in 1977. That was just six years after the formation of Amtrak, the government agency formed during the Nixon administration and dedicated to sustaining passenger rail service across the continental United States. 

Only four years after its formation, and after its extension from Washington, D.C. to New York -- one intended to help the line maintain revenue -- Amtrak shut the line down. That's when West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd began work to resurrect the line.

It only took him a year.

It's a move that made sense, given his state's stake in the line, Monte Verde said.

It was also an unlikely victory.

"Usually we see, once (a rail line is gone), it doesn't come back," said Morrell Savoy, deputy manager of Amtrak's Long Distance Business Line division.

Savoy spoke during Friday's conference, highlighting the long-distance lines' importance to being a truly transcontinental service, showing a map that illustrates how, without them, their capacity to serve the country's smaller metropolitan centers would not be possible:

Notice that Cincinnati would not be included without the Cardinal, which is counted among the agency's long-distance routes. Chicago and its surrounding area would become an island to much of the Midwest, and service to the South, the Southwest, the Great Plains and the Mountain States would be nearly non-existent. The Pacific coastline would be an island.

He said the long-distance routes are about connecting the country as a whole. Here's a comparison with the full network, including the long-distance routes:

A poster depicting Amtrak's full, national route network, as of Sept. 23, 2016. (Pat LaFleur/WCPO)

"We're not trying to corner the market on New York to Chicago (trips). The key is providing connectivity between those two communities," he said. His emphasis there was on "between."

But even with these routes' importance, service on the Cardinal would benefit from some improvements, elected and transit officials agree.

Cincinnati City Council member Amy Murray, who chairs the council's transportation committee, asked at Friday's conference about the line's reliability, which Savoy said lags behind other stops along the line. The line sees some behind-schedule arrivals, and bears the burden of inconvenient arrival times and low frequency, Savoy said: The line leaves Union Terminal at 1:30 a.m. and 3:30 a.m., three days a week.

Ridership on the Cardinal has also remained fairly stagnant over the last six years, hovering between 102,000 and 114,000 per year, according to data compiled by the National Association of Passenger Rail. Ridership out of Union Terminal has declined slightly over the last three years, from 14,812 in 2013 to 12,326 last year.

Speeding up

So what's to be done? Daily rail service on the Cardinal Line, to start, advocates say.

A quick look at this service map shows a clear gap in daily Amtrak service throughout the majority of Ohio:

Amtrak's routes offering daily service throughout the Midwest. (All Aboard Ohio)

Monte Verde urged his audience to begin advocating for improvements to the Cardinal Line now, for two primary reasons (among some others):

  • Despite the Cardinal's numbers, Amtrak as a whole has seen large growth over the last 15 years. Savoy said the system has seen a nearly 50-percent increase in ridership since 2000.
  • 2015's federal transportation bill -- historically nicknamed the "highway bill" -- was the first time in the bill's decades-long history to include funding expressly allocated to passenger rail transit.

It's a prospect that officials with the rail advocacy group All Aboard Ohio have called "low-hanging fruit."

That's mostly because the line is already in service -- it would only need increased frequency, according to Regional Director for rail advocacy group All Aboard Ohio, Derek Bauman. Estimated by AAO to cost roughly $2 million each year, Bauman said restoring daily service “is not a huge lift."

"Probably nationally, it’s the easiest [service enhancement] because the train is already running on the route,” he said.

Bauman was one of the conference's organizers.

Increasing the Cardinal to daily service was also AAO's number one among six recommendations for improving the line, in a report released last fall, not long after Congress' approval of the transportation bill.

How do we get there?

Here's where the "village" part comes in.

Advocates and leaders referred to it as "building a coalition." To demonstrate what that looks like, organizers flew in Sal Pace, county commissioner from Colorado's Pueblo County, about 100 miles south of Denver. Pace received a service award from Amtrak due to his hand in maintaining service along Amtrak's then-endangered Southwest Chief Line, which connects Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico.

"Building a coalition is essential," Pace said Friday.

What does that mean?

At the time, Pace was serving in the state's legislature, where he worked to create a commission comprised of local, county, state, freight and Amtrak officials with the shared goal of drumming up enough support to apply for federal grants.

Having that many parties at the table is almost always essential to convincing the U.S. Department of Transportation to award funding to a particular project, he said.

Here locally, the roster of Friday's conference hit all those bases: Three city council members; representatives from state legislators and Congress from Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana and West Virginia; leadership from the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments; All Aboard Ohio; and officials from CSX, the railroad company that owns the tracks, were all present.

Why hop onboard?

A common criticism of rail projects -- even when it comes to smaller-scale or more localized transit projects like the streetcar -- is that they're born more out of nostalgia for the past than modern practicality.

Monte Verde made sure to squash that quickly.

"We are pushing these trains and these lines as modern transportation and engines of economic development," he said.

Murray agreed: "I think (daily service) is a great way to show off our city," she said.

This framing of rail projects should sound familiar: It's the very same argument streetcar proponents have used to drum up support for the controversial project over the last several years.

Beyond just development, boosted rail service has shown to boost industry, as well. Pace pointed out that -- in expanding the Southwest Chief into Pueblo -- he also handed a lot of new work to his region's biggest industry: rail manufacturing.

Right here in the Tri-State, Norwood is home to a Siemens facility, which manufactures electronic, automation and digital components commonly found on trains.

Possible hurdles

Friday's conference established a tone of determination and hope, but leaders were sure to also emphasize realism and patience.

Bauman stressed the word "incremental" when describing rail progress, saying, "(Growing Amtrak) requires decades-long vision."

One issue Murray pointed to while speaking with reporters Friday was public awareness of the train service out of Union Terminal: "I think the more reliability you have in train service, the more people will use it and know that it's available."

A quick, unofficial Twitter poll of 125 local users 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:

There are a few other potential obstacles that this coalition will face:

Fighting for a seat

First and probably foremost, of the $8 billion Amtrak would get if the bill becomes law, only $20 million each year would go toward “restoration and enhancement of passenger rail service,” meaning Amtrak would have to agree that increasing Cardinal service alone deserves 10 percent of that section’s annual budget.

To the Cardinal Line’s advantage though, the bill directs the U.S. Department of Transportation to preference grant proposals “that would provide daily or daytime service over routes where such service did not previously exist (and) would provide service to regions and communities that are underserved or not served by other inter-city public transportation,” among other characteristics.

Sound familiar? It should.

Union Terminal not up to snuff?

According to a plan to enhance rail service to the city drafted in 2012 by city engineers (but as of yet not implemented), “if additional (Amtrak) service is added, it is likely that more space will be needed.” Specifically, this would mean a larger layoff yard as well as a dedicated “station track” for Amtrak passengers, set apart from the freight rails also running through the yard.

The report went on to say that increased track at Union Terminal would also be required in order to avoid a negative impact on freight traffic through Cincinnati.

Advocates have been discussing how to fund track expansion at the terminal.

Interstate 75

It’s like I-75 can’t stop getting in the way.

The Union Terminal plan points out that drivers heading northbound on I-75 from Kentucky have no direct access to the station from the freeway, prompting planners to conclude that an increase in service on the Cardinal Line would require an overhaul of the Ezzard Charles interchange along the interstate corridor.

With all that considered, if the packed room of dozens of leaders, officials and stakeholders convened Friday is any indication, there is considerable interest in getting this train moving.

While Monte Verde wouldn't speculate during Friday's conference on the cost of daily Cardinal service, he was optimistic: "Daily train is not the end, but the beginning," he said.

Follow WCPO transportation and development reporter Pat LaFleur on Twitter (@pat_laFleur).

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