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.

National Citizen Survey Shows Perceptions of Hamilton Continue To Improve

With the recent announcements of two major new employers, London-based Barclaycard and Colorado-based StarTek, bringing hundreds of new jobs to Hamilton, it may come as no surprise that the city performed comparatively well on the 2015 National Citizen Survey.

Made available to residents in nearly 550 other localities throughout the United States, the NCS is considered by most counties and municipalities as the standard-bearer for collecting meaningful qualitative data and providing informative, actionable feedback.

At the survey’s conclusion, each participating community received an in-depth report that summarized their residents’ responses in three areas: community characteristics, governance and participation. In aggregate, these are compiled to give a general overview of the community’s livability and quality of life. Embedded within this, the questions collect residents’ thoughts about eight key aspects that are central to any community: safety, mobility, the natural environment, the built environment, recreation/wellness, education/enrichment, and community engagement.

While the comparison to other communities is certainly useful, what’s most telling is how the Hamilton of today compares to the Hamilton of its not-so-distant past.

When lined up against its results from the 2011 NCS, the city saw positive gains in a nearly two-thirds of the survey. Not only did the city improve upon those areas where it had been lagging for decades, it also continued to bolster its status as a high-quality, cost-effective producer of public utilities and public goods.

From its best-tasting water, its increased hydroelectric energy production, to its publicly accessible natural-gas station (the first and only in Greater Cincinnati); Hamilton has proven that it is indeed possible to effectively provide public services through economically uncertain times.

It wasn’t all great news, however, with some of the lowest scores falling within the realm of transportation. In particular, few residents responded positively to questions about public transit and traffic flow, both of which have been notoriously subpar for a city of Hamilton’s size. By comparison, nearby Middletown, which is smaller than Hamilton, has had direct access to Interstate 75 and its own four-line public bus system for decades.

Within the city proper, there are only three bridges that connect the city across the Great Miami River within the city proper, all of which carry local roads. Further complicating this is Hamilton’s lack of any highway-grade road infrastructure of any significance as well as numerous at-grade railroad crossings on both sides of the river.

The city is attempting to address some of these transportation issues by moving forward with the $29 million South Hamilton Crossing project, while also lobbying to restore regular passenger rail service.

Public transit of any kind is non-existent in Hamilton, which only frustrates this situation even more. In response to this, city leaders say that they are working to improve relationships with Butler County and other entities within the county, including Middletown and Miami University, to improve public transit offerings.

In particular, the Butler County Regional Transit Authority has essentially absorbed operation of what had been independent bus services in Middletown and Oxford in order to build connectivity among the county’s population centers. BCRTA also maintains routes to West Chester and Tri-County Mall in coordination with Cincinnati’s Metro bus system.

Stars Aligning for Cincinnati to Chicago High-Speed Rail

4123288130_f7b778d9d5_bLocal and national developments show positive signs for America’s oft-criticized national passenger railroad company, Amtrak. A railroad reform bill introduced in the Senate contains many positive changes for Amtrak and local support continues to grow for increased service on Cincinnati’s tri-weekly train to Indianapolis and Chicago.

The Railroad Reform, Enhancement, and Efficiency Act of 2015 (RREEA, S.1626) was introduced by Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Roger Wicker (R-MS) to improve Amtrak service across the nation. The bill addresses several different issues for the railroad, including expansion, funding, and leadership. It also provides an increase in funding levels for the railroad through 2019.

In terms of leadership, the legislation would reorganize the board of directors for the railroad, with two representatives for the heavily traveled Northeast Corridor, two for long-distance routes (the Cardinal), and two for state-supported lines. There would also be one “floating” member.

The RREEA also includes several sections that fuel possible future expansion of the national rail network by establishing a committee to facilitate communication and cooperation between states and Amtrak on state-supported routes. In addition, it would require Amtrak to work with an independent agency to evaluate all routes and review possible elimination of routes, expansion or extension of current routes, or the establishment of new ones.

While calling this clause problematic, the National Association of Railroad Passengers acknowledges that this text includes a “comprehensive framework for analyzing a route that recognize the unique benefits rail service provides.”

Section 301 of the act explicitly requires that the Department of Transportation set up a program to assist the operating costs of launching or restoring passenger rail transportation. The section seems to be a nod towards the amount of routes cut from the system over Amtrak’s 40-plus years of operation.

Additional clauses provide mechanisms for cooperation between states and the federal government, when it comes to addressing the backlog of capital projects within the system, Amtrak’s money-losing food service, and the restoration of service along the Gulf Coast, a line that has been out of commission since Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

After the deadly derailment in Philadelphia in May, safety across the network is a major component of this legislation.

Both sponsoring senators touted the bipartisan nature of the bill and Senator Wicker’s office released a statement identifying the national passenger rail system as an “integral part of our overall transportation structure and our economy,” and thanking Senator Booker for his support and help in creating the bill.

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, & Transportation voted on July 13 to include the RREEA Act into the broader transportation bill, the Comprehensive Transportation and Consumer Protection Act of 2015 (S.1732).

In the Cincinnati metropolitan area, support continues to grow for the expansion of rail service in the area, especially to Chicago.

The City of Hamilton recently applied to Amtrak for a stop and has passed a resolution of support for increased service. Nearby in Oxford, home of Miami University, initial approvals have been set to create a station for Amtrak, and efforts are currently underway to identify the exact location for that facility.

The effort has also gained support from the University of Cincinnati Student Senate, when they passed a resolution 31-1 in support of increased rail service to Chicago, citing Chicago as “an important transportation hub for students’ co-op travels, as well as an economic destination for students, staff, and faculty alike.”

According to All Aboard Ohio’s Southwest regional director, Derek Bauman, the UC student government president is also coordinating with other local university student governments to obtain resolutions of support; and in addition to Hamilton, both Norwood, where Amtrak employs local workers, and Wyoming, where the Cardinal line runs through, have also passed resolutions of support for increased passenger rail service.

Hamilton County commissioners also unanimously approved a resolution pursuing a feasibility study.

Going forward, Bauman says that there will be a need for increased cooperation and support from local Metropolitan Planning Organizations along the route. In Columbus, the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission (MORPC) has actively supported the implementation of a Columbus-Ft. Wayne-Chicago rail line; and in Northeast Ohio, a consortium of local MPOs have banded together and formed a sub-group to support increased rail service to the region.

From here, leadership at All Aboard Ohio says that they hope the OKI Regional Council of Governments will take a similar approach on behalf of the Cincinnati region.

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.”