Ohio’s passenger rail offerings will be looked at as part of a recently-announced $2.78 million federal study of rail planning in the Midwest, which proponents hope will change the future of travel here. FILE PHOTO
Photo: Photo courtesty of Amtrak
Photo: Photo courtesty of Amtrak

Local leaders push for more rail, Amtrak travel

Ohio’s passenger rail offerings will be looked at as part of a recently-announced $2.78 million federal study of rail planning in the Midwest, which proponents hope will change the future of travel here.

That, combined with rail provider Amtrak’s thumbs up to plan a train stop in Oxford, might provide southwest Ohio residents with more options for travel to nearby states and cities, including Chicago.

More trains stops could connect local businesses to partners in Indiana or Illinois. It could also bring in tourists to cities like Oxford.

“We’re disconnected,” said Derek Bauman, the southwest Ohio director for All Aboard Ohio, a group that advocates for more rail travel in the state. “That’s not good. It doesn’t put our region in a good, competitive position.”

Rail transportation in Ohio faces notable hurdles.

Amtrak only runs two lines in Ohio, one through Cleveland and the other in Cincinnati. The Cincinnati stop is infamous for its bad timing — it drops off passengers only three times a week around 3 a.m. at Union Terminal in downtown Cincinnati.

And while some say they want more train stops in the area, those plans have almost zero support at the state level.

When Gov. John Kasich took office in 2011, citing upkeep costs and low ridership fears, he axed a $400 million offer from the federal government to build a rail system that would travel from Cleveland to Cincinnati and halted state-led passenger rail planning.

He also pulled Ohio’s $15,000 annual membership from Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission, an interstate agency that applied for the federal study of Midwest travel.

Kasich, instead, focused on freight train investments to pick up jobs, Jim Lynch, the spokesman for the office, said in a statement.

“We have focused our efforts on fueling the economic engine of the state, which includes improving our freight rail system to make Ohio more competitive for economic growth,” he said.

Stopping in Oxford

Oxford could open up the sliding train doors for others to add Amtrak services in the area.

The college town was approved earlier this year for a possible stop, although where that stop will go, how much it will cost and how the tab for its construction will be divvied up is still undetermined. Amtrak is partially funded by the federal government, but it’s likely the city and Miami will pay for construction of the stop. Once those details are decided, Amtrak will begin negotiating with CSX, the private owner of the rails in Oxford, to use the tracks for stops.

Amtrak’s Cardinal Line travels from New York to Chicago and passes through Oxford three times a week but currently doesn’t stop. The stop could take years to construct before it opens up, said Randi Thomas, the director institutional relations at Miami.

“People tend to forget, because gas prices right now are fairly reasonable, but it wasn’t too long ago that everybody thought it was going to be close to $4 (a gallon),” Thomas said. “We don’t want to wait for that to happen. We want to be in a place where we have alternative means of transportation.”

Amtrak has been courting Millennial riders in recent years because fewer of them are learning how to drive and they’re more likely to use mass transportation to commute or travel, said Bauman, of All Aboard Ohio.

The stop in Oxford would give Amtrak access to Miami’s 18,000 college students, thousands of whom are from out of the state or country, and might travel on the rail to get home, travel to a new destination or catch a ride to the Indianapolis airport.

“We have a lot of students from a lot of big cities and we have a good number of international students. Those students are used to having multiple means of transportation,” Thomas said.

The stop will also be a test for ridership demands in southwest Ohio and could spur other cities to look at Amtrak stops.

“They might be a little more encouraged to push for a stop in their city,” said Julie Kaercher, the spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Transportation’s rail development commission.

The stop would be the second one in the southern half of Ohio, which has fewer Amtrak stops compared to many of the Midwest states, including Illinois, Indiana, Missouri and Wisconsin.

Still, ridership has been up in the state. From 2009 to 2014 the number of riders in Ohio increased by 21 percent, according to Amtrak figures. More than 13,000 travelers passed through the Cincinnati stop.

City of Hamilton officials will be watching how progress unfolds with the Oxford station closely. The city was denied an Amtrak stop in June because of the ongoing plans to build one in nearby Oxford.

“I think it’s positive that Oxford is getting a closer look,” said City Manager Joshua Smith. “If Oxford gets a stop, and we don’t, I still consider that a win. Obviously, we would still like to have her own.”

Last year, the Smith and Hamilton Mayor Pat Moeller partnered up with Hamilton County commissioners to urge the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments to study the feasibility of regional and multi-state rail transportation expansion. Funds, however, were never made available for the project.

‘If I could hop on a train and go…’

But the $2.78 million study federal government study announced this summer could give rail transportation in the Midwest the closer look regional leaders have requested.

“For our region, the next thing is going to be looking at what comes out of the Midwest study,” Bauman said.

The Midwest hasn’t had access to federal funds to study rail transportation in years, said Laura Kliewer, the director of the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

Details about the study — including when it will start — likely won’t be hammered out until later this year. Kliewer expects topics like where the trains stop, how frequently and when will be examined. She said local, regional and statewide stakeholders will be consulted.

For Chicago-area resident Michael Richardson timing is key for researchers to study.

Richardson typically travels to the Cincinnati area twice monthly for work and would love to travel by train. The 3 a.m. stop, however, at Union Terminal is usually too inconvenient. It also takes more than 8 hours to get to Chicago by rail — another thing local leaders say they would like to see the federal government study.

Richardson said faster and more frequent train service between areas like southwest Ohio and Chicago would also save businesses money and time. Flights to Cincinnati typically cost at least $300, but a train ticket is a third of the price. Trains also allow traveling employees to work while commuting.

“I would be there more if I could hop on a train and go,” Richardson said.

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