Push for Daily Amtrak Service on Cincinnati Route Intensifies

The Chief Scout Executive of the Boy Scouts of America, Michael Surbaugh, appealed to Amtrak CEO Wick Moorman to upgrade Amtrak’s Cardinal from its current tri-weekly service to a daily train. In his December 15 letter, Chief Scout Surbaugh urged a temporary or trial daily Cardinal for the Boy Scouts of America’s National Jamboree, which will take place at the Summit Bechtel Reserve in Mt. Hope, West Virginia. Amtrak’s Cardinal serves stops all along this area, which directly services the 70,000-acre New River Gorge National River. Looking further into the future, the Boy Scouts will be holding their World Scout Jamboree at this same location in 2019.

The Boy Scouts of America have used their Southwest Chief-serviced location near Raton, New Mexico for large events for many years. As an attendee to the joint All Aboard Ohio and Amtrak “Cardinal Conference” hosted by the Cincinnati USA Chamber of Commerce in September – the Boy Scouts were made aware of the issues surrounding less-than-daily Cardinal service.

The Boy Scouts join a myriad of organizations along the line pushing for better service by those communities which are served by it, including the City of Oxford and Miami University, which moved one step closer to a new Cardinal stop in the city. Derek Bauman, All Aboard Ohio’s Vice Chair, stated that, “[w]e are thankful to the BSA for its letter which shows that interest in this enhanced rail service remains strong.”

In his letter to Amtrak CEO Wick Moorman, Chief Scout Surbaugh stated “I know I speak for all when I say that enhanced service would be a welcome addition offering the possibility of increased ridership and visitors to the New River Gorge.” The state of West Virginia seems to agree, as shown by the unanimous motion passed in favor of daily Cardinal service from the West Virginia Governor’s Conference on Tourism. Amtrak itself projected in 2010 that daily service on the Cardinal would result in nearly doubling the current number of passengers utilizing that train.

Proposed Amtrak Extensions and Upgrades (map via All Aboard Ohio)

One of the major challenges to running effective train service to Chicago via the Cardinal includes the condition of track on the current route. All Aboard Ohio Chairperson Ken Prendergast told UrbanCincy, “It should be noted that about 50-60 miles of the Chicago-Fort Wayne/Lima nearest to Chicago could be used by Cincinnati to Chicago trains. It would provide a much faster routing into Chicago than the current route of the Cardinal and any other Cincinnati – Chicago trains that may be added in the near future.”

Elsewhere in Ohio, a passenger rail line linking rail-starved cities like Columbus and Lima to Chicago via Ft. Wayne and Gary, IN received a major boost on Tuesday. Federal officials gave permission for communities along the line to begin the Alternative Analysis and Public Input process, which will do preliminary engineering, service planning, and measure environmental impacts. Those officials met at Ft. Wayne’s Baker Street Station, which saw its last passenger service in 1990. This analysis will being in January of 2017 and finish by the Fall of that same year. The $350,000 needed for this initial studying was raised by cities all along the line.

“This is the first step in the Project Development Process, which all major transportation projects must go through. Right now there is enough funding from communities and businesses west of Lima to do the Chicago-Lima portion but not farther east to Columbus” Prendergast stated.

Prendergast sees these lines as a next step in further connecting Ohio via rail between Chicago and the east coast. If a Chicago to Columbus line is created it is not impossible to  imagine future phases that could expand eastward beyond Columbus as well, Prendergast says, “there’s nothing that says the Eastern Terminus of this route has to be Columbus. In fact Amtrak services from Cleveland and Toledo could be routed over this Fort Wayne-Chicago segment. But we still believe Central Ohio will decide it’s in their economic interest to be a part of this project.”

Officials speaking at the news conference highlighted their big dreams and big plans for the new possible rail line. They called for initial service to run between 70-80mph, with eventual upgrades to 110mph. A 2013 study by the Northeast Indiana Passenger Rail Association estimated that 10 trains a day along this line could generate up to 2 million annual passengers by 2020.

While both of these proposals require the cooperation of the freight railroads who own the lines (CSX and Norfolk Southern, respectively), many have hope because of Amtrak’s new CEO, Wick Moorman. Moorman is a veteran of the freight rail industry, having served more than 4 decades with Norfolk Southern and its predecessor, Southern. He has signaled that improved relations with the Class I freight railroads will be a focus of his tenure as CEO.

PHOTOS: Cincinnati Bell Connector Gives 50,000 Rides Opening Weekend

The much-awaited Cincinnati Bell Connector opened to the public on Friday, September 9, and gave over 50,000 rides during its grand opening three-day weekend.

Councilwoman Amy Murray, who serves as Chair of the Major Transportation and Regional Cooperation Committee, hosted the grand opening ceremony at Washington Park. In addition to Murray, there were 12 speakers including current and former politicians, transit officials, and business leaders. Many of the speakers thanked the streetcar supporters who kept the project going over the years as it faced obstacle after obstacle. Several used the opportunity to call for an expansion of the system, with former mayor Mark Mallory saying that it’s not a question of “if,” but “when” and “where” the streetcar goes next.

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After the first five ceremonial rides, the Connector opened to the public around noon. It was free to ride all weekend thanks to donations from Believe in Cincinnati, streetcar manufacturer CAF, Cincinnati Bell, Fred Craig, the Haile Foundation, and Joseph Automotive Group. Each station was staffed with volunteers who helped inform riders about the how the system works, where it goes, and how to pay your fare after the start of revenue service. Additionally, a number of special events and activities took place place near each of the streetcar stations, ranging from DJs to ballet dancers to sidewalk chalk artists. Many businesses along the route offered special streetcar-themed food, drinks, and merchandise.

The system initially opened with four out of the five streetcars in service, but the fifth was put into service around 4 p.m. on Friday and all five continued to operate for the remainder of the weekend. The system operated at nearly maximum capacity all weekend, with lines of people waiting to board at each station.

Unfortunately, the system was forced to close on Saturday afternoon due to a bomb threat. The threat, which appears to be connected to similar threats made over the weekend at the Cincinnati Zoo and two local high school football games, was not believed to be credible, but the system was closed down as a precautionary measure. After a bomb-sniffing dog searched all five streetcars and found nothing, they were put back in to service.

Despite this setback, the system transported passengers on 18,141 trips on Friday, 17,160 on Saturday, and 15,345 on Sunday, for a grand total of 50,646 trips during the grand opening.

After the free weekend, revenue service began Monday morning on the Cincinnati Bell Connector. The fare is $1 for a two-hour pass, or $2 for an all-day pass. No streetcar-specific monthly pass is available, but a monthly Metro pass includes rides on the streetcar as well as Metro buses. Tickets can be purchased at kiosks at each station, or using the Cincy EZRide app which is now available in the iOS App Store and Google Play.

Beyond Downtown, Cleveland’s RTA Rebuild Spurring New Development

Amidst further positive national news for upgraded Midwestern rail service, All Aboard Ohio met in Cleveland for their summer meet-up. At the weekend-long gathering, the group toured the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority’s numerous heavy rail, light rail, and bus rapid transit lines.

Often unknown to outsiders, the Cleveland area boasts some 39 miles of rail transit, with daily ridership of over 53,000. As a result, Cleveland’s transit ridership dwarfs that of both Cincinnati and Columbus. Even though Cleveland is approximately the same size as Cincinnati and Columbus, its transit ridership is bigger than both of them combined.

In addition, All Aboard Ohio executive director Ken Prendergast led the tour and showcased the substantial amount of transit-oriented development that is taking place throughout Cleveland.

With the opening of Cincinnati’s first few miles of rail transit just over a year away, it made the tour particularly relevant. As a result, I was joined by a small Cincinnati contingent including City Councilman Chris Seelbach (D), SW Ohio Director of All Aboard Ohio Derek Bauman, and Price Hill community leader Pete Witte.

The group’s tour began at Terminal City Tower in downtown Cleveland, where inter-city trains once stopped and all rapid transit lines currently meet. From there we took the Green Line to the lakefront, passing large-scale transit-oriented development along the Cuyahoga River, the Port of Cleveland, Cleveland Brown Stadium, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and the city’s Amtrak station.

Negotiations are currently underway for the construction of a large intermodal hub where Amtrak is currently located, combining Amtrak, Greyhound, Megabus, and many local buses from Akron and other cities into one complex.

The Green Line’s E. 55th Street Station was showcased after having been rehabbed in 2011. It is part of GCRTA’s program to rebuild every station in its system. Nearby this still young station, an old hospital is undergoing a $75 million redevelopment that will refit it with apartments.

Changing to the Blue Line, the train ran through semi-suburban areas that reminded the Cincinnati contingent of the Wasson Corridor. Among these areas is the Van Aken District at the Warrensville Station at the end of the line. There, Joyce Braverman, the planning director for Shaker Heights, gave us a walking tour of the area and detailed the numerous transit-oriented developments currently under construction, including a $91 million residential development and a rebuild of a pedestrian-unfriendly intersection.

A newly renovated station – just four days old – greeted us at Little Italy along with the Feast of the Assumption Festival. In addition to the throngs of neighborhood residents filing in and out of the trains, redevelopment can be found nearby in University Circle. During an opportunity to speak with the president of University Circle Inc., he boasted about the area’s transformation from a run-down district with multiple surface parking lots into one of the city’s most desirable neighborhoods.

The numbers back up the claims. In just a decade, more than $6 billion in private investment has flowed to the neighborhood, generating some 10,000 new jobs and 11,000 new residents.

While serviced by RTA’s Red Line, this particular area is also anchored by Cleveland’s now famous Health Line BRT, which runs along Euclid Avenue to the center city and is the highest-rated BRT line in North America.

Through this station rebuilding program, Cleveland has used it as an opportunity to leverage an impressive amount of private investment in the surrounding areas. While success of downtown Cleveland has been well-publicized amidst the continued struggles elsewhere in the region, there are bright spots popping up along the city’s transit corridors. With more than 100 rail and BRT stations in the region, many more opportunities seem to be on the horizon.

All Aboard Ohio Cincinnati Chapter to Meet at Pi Pizzeria This Tuesday

All Aboard Ohio will be hosting another local chapter meeting in Cincinnati on Tuesday, February 10 at 6pm. The meeting is free and open to the public, but those who attend are encouraged to sign up as members for the non-profit advocacy group.

This month’s meeting will take place at Pi Pizzeria at 199 E. Sixth Street. The recently opened restaurant has become known for selecting their restaurant location due to its location on the starter line for the Cincinnati Streetcar system, and for paying a base $10.10/hour minimum wage.

“We want to thank Pi Pizzeria owner Chris Sommers and his staff for hosting us,” said Ken Prendergast, Executive Director of All Aboard Ohio. “If you haven’t had the opportunity to try it yet you are in for a treat.”

Cincinnati City Councilman Wendell Young (D) will serve as the special guest speaker at the quarterly local chapter meeting.

Prendergast says that the group will discuss updates related to the ‘Extend The Hoosier‘ campaign that is aiming to establish daily intercity rail service between Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Chicago; the Cincinnati Streetcar; and provide updates on what is happening with the Wasson Light Rail Line project.

While All Aboard Ohio has been around for years, the organization is experiencing a resurgent base of supporters as of late, particularly in the Cincinnati region where several rail projects are currently under development.

Prendergast says that those who want to can do so for just a $35 annual membership fee, and that those dues to toward supporting these projects and are tax deductible.

Support Continues to Grow for Daily Train Service Between Cincinnati and Chicago

Midwest Regional Rail ServiceOhio is surprisingly one of the nation’s least-served states by intercity passenger rail service, but All Aboard Ohio is working to change that.

Perhaps best well known for their fruitless advocacy for the 3C Corridor – an intercity passenger rail line that would have linked Ohio’s largest cities – All Aboard Ohio has regained relevancy as of late. While continually advocating for improvements on existing Amtrak service across the northern reaches of the state, the non-profit organization has also become increasingly involved with efforts to establish rail service between Columbus and Chicago, and Cincinnati and Chicago.

Columbus currently has no connections to the capital of the economically robust Great Lakes region, but Cincinnati does, albeit ever so slightly. As of now, Cincinnatians can get to Chicago via the scrappy three-day-a-week train service offered on Amtrak’s Cardinal Route. In addition to not being daily service, trains infamously arrive and depart in the middle of the night.

This is something, however, that area leaders and All Aboard Ohio officials are working to change. One potential example, they say, is to extend existing service offered on Amtrak’s Hoosier Route. The combination of Amtrak’s Cardinal and Hoosier routes offers Indianapolis daily service to Chicago. From there, the hope is to make gradual improvements to bring the service up to 110mph speeds.

“There is a buzz and excitement in southwest Ohio about connecting to Indy and Chicago that is palpable,” explained Derek Bauman, SW Ohio Director for All Aboard Ohio. “Even those that have not necessarily been fans of previous rail projects see the necessity of connecting to Chicago – the business and commerce epicenter of the U.S. between the coasts.”

The energy Bauman speaks of was recently seen at an area meeting held by All Aboard Ohio at the Christian Moerlein Tap Room in Over-the-Rhine. According to Ken Prendergast, Executive Director of All Aboard Ohio, such meetings are typically pretty dull, but this was not the case in Cincinnati.

“Our free local meetings are usually less extravagant than our statewide meetings, and are more akin to briefing or coordination gatherings,” Prendergast told UrbanCincy. “They generally only draw a dozen or two dozen people, so this meeting’s attendance was pretty good.”

All Aboard Ohio welcomed Cincinnati City Councilwoman Amy Murray (R) as their special guest. Over the past few months Murray has taken on a bit of a leadership role in the discussion about establishing daily rail service to Indianapolis and onward to Chicago. Her leadership has also come at a time when Hamilton County Commissioners, in a surprising fashion, voted unanimously in favor of studying the establishment of such service.

Bauman says that All Aboard Ohio has been working with the OKI Regional Council of Governments on a potential scope and funding plan for a feasibility study on the manner, following the unanimous vote from Greg Hartmann (R), Todd Portune (D) and Chris Monzel (R). He says that the group has also been meeting with local jurisdictions and business leaders to grow support even further.

“A big part of this is educating stakeholders on what our competitor regions throughout the Midwest are doing,” said Bauman. “For example, Detroit has three Amtrak roundtrips a day, Milwaukee has seven, St. Louis has five, and even Carbondale, IL has three. Simply put, we are being left behind.”

Some of that recent outreach has included both Hamilton and Oxford – communities that sit along the existing Cardinal Route and would be prime candidates for stops in a case where service is enhanced. To that extent, both communities, in addition to Miami University, have expressed their support for the effort. Now, according to Bauman, the next steps are to reach out to Xavier University and the University of Cincinnati.

“As we continue to work with business and government leaders toward establishing at least daily service to Cincinnati, coordinating with our regional institutions of higher learning will be a growing and vital piece of our advocacy partnership focus,” Bauman explained. “Bringing back proper inter-city rail services will be transformative for our region and positively impact the lives of people.”