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Amtrak plans Ohio expansion

Rail passenger company takes rare initiative to achieve growth

Every 20-25 years, Amtrak gets into expansion mode. But it has never proposed anything as aggressive as what it is proposing now.

The national passenger railroad is proposing the Amtrak Connects US Plan and an expenditure of about $75 billion over 15 years, divided equally among three five-year increments, to create or expand 35 corridors (routes of up to 750 miles in length each). Amtrak’s proposed expansion would add or expand five routes serving Ohio:

Cincinnati-Dayton-Columbus-Cleveland (3C+D) Corridor: three daily round trips with intermediate station stops;

Cincinnati-Indianapolis-Chicago: four daily round trips with intermediate station stops;

Cleveland-Toledo-Detroit-Pontiac: three daily round trips with intermediate station stops, including a possible extension of Wolverine Corridor train service from Chicago;

Cleveland-Buffalo-Albany-New York: one daily round trip with intermediate station stops, including a possible extension of Empire Corridor train service;

Cleveland-Pittsburgh-New York: one daily round trip with intermediate station stops via an extension of Keystone Corridor train service.

If you would like to see this happen, then you need to tell Congress to pass the INVEST in America Act which is the upcoming five-year surface transportation reauthorization.

How could this develop?

Although 15 years seems like a long time, it really is not when one considers the level of transformation proposed by this initiative. And some features of this transformation could appear much sooner than others.

The first changes would likely appear along Amtrak’s existing routes such as those across Northern Ohio and from Cincinnati into Chicago. There, Amtrak already has operating agreements with the host railroads, active passenger stations and train servicing/layover facilities. It’s the lowest hanging fruit Amtrak can grab to make an immediate difference. And, when a new route like 3C+D Corridor gets underway, it will have train services at either end for 3C+D passengers to connect to, creating greater network efficiencies.

Why does Amtrak want it?

The reason why Amtrak is proposing this aggressive expansion is because, since it began 50 years ago on May 1, 1971, its route network has changed very little and thus its ridership growth has not kept up with the nation’s population growth. While Amtrak serves the coasts and some Midwest routes pretty well, it lacks service to many booming cities like Atlanta, Nashville, Phoenix and most of Texas and Florida.

In the latter two states, private operators like Texas Central Partners and Brightline are taking the initiative to add modern, fast and frequent passenger rail services on routes linking large cities. Some public funding is coming into play but is mostly tangential. There, the states and federal government are reacting to and supporting the private sector’s initiative.

Amtrak took notice. For much of Amtrak’s history, Amtrak was the reactionary to the initiative of a few states willing to take the lead on financing passenger rail projects costing hundreds of millions of dollars but resulting in even larger economic benefits. Ohio hasn’t been one of those states willing to take the initiative.

Ohio is an expansion target

According to Amtrak, Ohio has the lowest ratio of Amtrak riders per resident of the top 10 most populous states. It is the seventh-most-populous state but is only the 27th-highest in ridership. Ohio’s three biggest metro areas (Cincinnati, Cleveland and Columbus) are among the least well served top-50 metro areas based on the number of Amtrak passengers per 1,000 population.

In a May 19 roundtable with Ohio media, Amtrak CEO Bill Flynn and President Steve Gardner says Ohio has the characteristics that would support successful corridor services. Namely, Ohio has multiple large metropolitan areas within 300 miles of each other. They noted that the 3C+D corridor is among a handful of routes Amtrak called a “priority.” Others at Amtrak said CIN-IND-CHI, CLE-TOL-DET are also attractive. Plus, All Aboard Ohio pressure on Amtrak caused it to add extensions of its Empire and Keystone corridors into Ohio, they said.

“With those services in place, Ohio service could look like Virginia’s and ridership could grow to more than 1 million per year,” Amtrak Government Affairs Officer Derrick James added. In 2019, the most recent year for which data was available, Amtrak boardings at Ohio stations were 132,095, down from 134,978 the year before.

This proposed expansion would the largest, best-funded and most sustainable initiative in Amtrak’s history. The two previous expansion eras were short-lived and poorly conceived.

Past expansion eras

In the 1970s, Congress authorized and funded three experimental new Amtrak routes. All three involved Ohio. One was Norfolk, VA to Cincinnati, but it only made it as far west as Catlettsburg, KY where it connected with Amtrak James Whitcomb Riley, predecessor of today’s Cardinal.

Second was Washington DC-Denver, which was operated from 1976-81 as the Washington DC-Cincinnati Shenandoah that never made it farther west due to poor track. Both routes failed to attract much ridership.

Finally, a Boston-Chicago route became the New York City/Boston-Chicago Lake Shore Limited that started service in 1975 via Cleveland and Toledo. It instantly became a popular route and continues to operate successfully to this day.

The second Amtrak expansion era occurred in the late 1990s and was based on a poorly executed expansion of Amtrak’s mail and package express handling business. In Ohio, Amtrak reactivated the 1995-canceled Chicago-Akron-Youngstown-Pittsburgh New York Broadway Limited a year later as the Three Rivers. A year after that, Amtrak restructured the Pittsburgh-New York Pennsylvanian as a Chicago-Toledo-Cleveland-Pittsburgh-Philadelphia route.

In 1998, Amtrak planned to restore the Chicago-Detroit-Toledo Lake Cities and start a new Chicago-Toledo-Cleveland-Pittsburgh-Philadelphia-New York Skyline Connection. Amtrak even put this train (daytime west of Pittsburgh, overnight east of Pittsburgh) in its timetable but never ran the train.

This expansion era failed because Amtrak began competing with the track-owning freight railroads for business. At the same time, Amtrak wasn’t paying the host railroads market-rate track-use fees. Mail/express switching moves were also making schedules longer and delaying trains. Most of these mail/express-driven trains were eliminated by 2005.

This expansion program appears to be more well thought-out. But it still depends on Congress to create and fund it. And the actual execution of the expansion program by Amtrak and states wanting competitive bidding from more than one operator remains to be seen.

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