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New Ohio rail line would bypass historic station

(The Associated Press circulated the following on May 4, 2009.)

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Amtrak recommends restoring passenger rail service among Ohio's major cities by bypassing the grandest train station left in the state.

Getting new passenger trains into Cincinnati's Union Terminal, a 76-year-old landmark known for its bold Art Deco style and enormous rotunda, would require extensive capital improvements and add to freight congestion already in the area, according to Amtrak's preliminary study, which recommends building a new train station on the city's riverfront instead.

Amtrak's route recommendation, obtained by The Associated Press through a public records request, is part of a study on what it would take to run 79-mph trains along existing freight tracks connecting Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton and Cincinnati — a project that Gov. Ted Strickland wants funded with federal stimulus money.

President Barack Obama's $787 billion economic recovery package, signed in February, sets aside $8 billion for passenger rail projects in the U.S., something Obama sees as a down payment for a future high-speed network. The first round of funding is expected to be announced this summer.

Strickland has estimated Ohio would need $250 million in stimulus money to begin new Amtrak operations by the end of 2010, with the state picking up an annual $10 million operating cost.

Despite being one of the most treasured buildings in Cincinnati, Union Terminal, which handled 17,000 passengers and 216 trains a day in the 1930s, isn't a good option for a new passenger line, Amtrak told state transportation officials.

A new train station near the Montgomery Inn restaurant along the Ohio River is the only cost-effective way to serve Cincinnati, Amtrak said. The Indiana &Ohio Railway has a lightly used track at the riverfront, although the site has parking limitations that would need to be resolved.

Matt Dietrich, executive director of the Ohio Rail Development Commission, a state agency that hired Amtrak to conduct the study, said he agrees with the findings.

It's possible that Union Terminal, which was converted into a museum center in the 1990s, could be included in long-term plans for higher-speed 110-mph trains, he said. But even with major upgrades and a new concourse, the terminal has significant traffic problems — the rail route there is one of the biggest freight bottlenecks in the country.

Bypassing Union Terminal is a blow to supporters who had hoped to see expanded passenger rail service there. Amtrak has a national route connecting Chicago, Washington and New York that stops three times a week at the terminal.

Amtrak's preference for a new station diminishes Union Terminal and the city, said Douglass McDonald, president of the Cincinnati Museum Center, the organization at Union Terminal that oversees its children's museum, a natural history museum and a local history museum.

The terminal was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1977.

Amtrak's other route recommendations include bypassing Elyria and Akron on the northern leg in favor of a more direct route linking Cleveland to Columbus.

Cleveland's existing downtown Amtrak station, which picks up travelers for a Chicago-based national route, would be expanded for the new state line, according to the study. Station sites for Columbus and other potential stops are undetermined.

The study also concluded that the entire 250-mile Cleveland-to-Cincinnati trip would take six hours, compared with about 4 1/2 hours nonstop by car on Interstate 71.

But Amtrak cautioned this was only a rough estimate. Computer modeling of trains on the route is incomplete.

Also, time can be shaved with anticipated safety upgrades to tracks along the route, allowing trains to travel up to 79 mph for longer stretches, Dietrich said.

Amtrak's full study, which will include ridership and revenue forecasts, is expected by the end of August.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

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