Campaigning to Expand Cincinnati Rail Service

Cincinnati area passenger rail advocates have begun a push to increase passenger rail service between Chicago and the Queen City.

A first step in that direction is to conduct a study to determine how much it would cost to improve the current route used by Amtrak’s Cardinal between the two cities.

Derek Bauman, a regional director for All Aboard Ohio and Cincinnati resident, on Monday appeared before the Hamilton County Transportation Improvement District Board to pitch the idea of daily high-speed train service to Chicago.

“What we’re looking at doing is making passenger rail an actual transportation option, a realistic option to be able to connect to Chicago,” Bauman said. “The first step is to see if we all agree whether this is a good idea.”

Bauman is trying to generate bi-partisan support from federal, state and local leaders in Ohio and Indiana.

“This is without knowing the cost, but just the concept is a great idea,” said Cincinnati City Councilwoman Amy Murray. “With the way airfares are going up and the support we’ve seen for Megabus, high-speed rail on a consistent basis to Chicago could be a game-changer.”

Murray, who once served as a business development manager for Procter & Gamble, said the business leaders she has met with favor the idea of high-speed rail.

The Haile/U.S. Bank Foundation supports those efforts and has awarded All Aboard Ohio a grant to help promote the idea.

“If we improve the frequency and speed of our passenger rail service connections with Chicago, our community – and every community between here and Chicago – will benefit,” said Haile Foundation Vice President Eric Avner.

Federal transportation travel data shows that Chicago was the No. 2 destination from Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport between July 2013 and June 2014.

Amtrak’s Cardinal operates tri-weekly between Chicago and New York and calls upon Cincinnati in the middle of the night.

The current schedule has the Cardinal arriving at Cincinnati Union Terminal at 1:13 a.m. westbound on Monday, Thursday and Saturday. The eastbound Cardinal is scheduled to arrive at 3:17 a.m. on Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. The travel time between Cincinnati and Chicago is seven hours.

Murray and her husband, Wally, decided to take Amtrak to Sacramento, Calif., for a wedding this past summer.

They rode Megabus from Cincinnati to Chicago before boarding Amtrak because of the limited and inconvenient Amtrak schedules at Cincinnati.

Columbus, Fort Wayne and seven other Ohio and Indiana cities recently agreed to work on launching rail passenger service between Columbus and Chicago.

“We’re being left behind,” Bauman said. “This would be good for job growth in the region.”

Bauman cited the example of the work underway to upgrade Amtrak’s Chicago-St. Louis route to allow for 110 mph speeds and a four-hour travel time by 2017.

Amtrak currently offers five roundtrips between Chicago and St. Louis, including four Lincoln Service rondtrips funded in part by the State of Illinois and the Chicago-San Antonio Texas Eagle.

“That would be our goal, and so what we want to do is make sure that we are on par with our peer competitor cities that we are staying connected in a way that will drive jobs, drive economic development and attract and retain talent,” he said.

Bauman said improved rail service to Chicago is not a new idea, having been proposed in the 1990s in the form of the Midwest High-Speed Rail Initiative.

Another rail supporter told the board that if the Tri-State doesn’t invest in transportation, it will be left behind, economically.  Pete Witte noted that Columbus and Cleveland are already working on improving rail connections with Chicago.

Witte added that airlines are cutting the number of regional flights, thus increasing the importance of improving intercity rail service.

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