Sunday Train: Getting Ohio’s 3C Line Into Cincinnati

(noon. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

Burning the Midnight Oil for Living Energy Independence

While EnergyFreedom Transport is an issue that has been brought back onto the “front burner” (so to speak) …

… there has been ongoing work on this front ever since the supply-drive oil price shocks of the 70’s and 80’s.

Ohio won $400m in competitive HSR funding from Stimulus II, to do the first work toward a 110mph Triple-C corridor, supporting a starter Amtrak-speed service at first and then building toward a 110mph.

But it aint 3 C’s without Cincinnati, and getting into Cincinnati is tricky.

An abbreviated sketch of a history of HSR in Ohio

With the closure of the Penn Central 3C passenger service at the start of the 70’s, and then the first oil price shock hitting soon after, advocates of offering Buckeyes transport alternatives were successful in putting a bullet train proposal on the ballot in the 1980’s. However, the proposed dedicated sales tax funding was rejected by voters, and it was therefore back to the drawing board.

Under the HSR framework established by Clinton in the 90’s, Ohio established the Ohio HSR Commission and began work on the Ohio Hub plan – a network of passenger rail corridors connecting the largest cities in the state and connecting with other passenger rail plans being developed to both East (the Empire Corridor via Buffalo and Keystone Corridor via Pittsburgh) and West (the Midwest Hub designed around Chicago).

Of course, “funding planning for …” is the kind of budget crumbs that advocates of systems like had to settle for as the “all hat, no cattle” approach under Clinton passed into the “Energy Independence is the Enemy of Oil Company Profits” aggressively anti-rail approach of Bush. But those crumbs did continue to fall from the table and so planning work on the Ohio Hub was able to continue.

Then under Stimulus II (Stimulus I, you will recall, was the $250/person one-off tax rebate check that Bush was willing to sign, which was so effective in preventing the long, slow decline of the first half of 2008 from becoming a full blown … oh, no, strike that, Stimulus I completely ineffective in preventing the developing recession from becoming a massive financial crisis and the most serious economic downturn since the end of World War II) … when the Congressional conferees were balking at the size of the “Department of Transport to allocate” funds, the Obama Admnistration was able to get $8b allocated to High Speed Rail projects.

Ohio worked with Amtrak to turn a 1/3 down payment on the Triple-C 110mph corridor into complete project for an Amtrak-speed starter line, and was awarded $400m, which is basically the budgeted cost of the project except for “contingencies”.

Meanwhile, down in Cincinnati

Cincinnati has a bit of a reputation as a place that local transit project proposals go to die. Indeed, Cincinnati had the distinction of the longest subway system that was build but never used.

However, that may be changing, with a recent local ballot initiative designed to kill the proposed Cincinnati Streetcar project going down to defeat, and then more recently an announcement that Cincinnati has assembled $86.5m for the project, with about another $40m to go. With the recent trend in Federal Department of Transport funding for local transit projects with a substantial amount of local funding, the prospects are much better that this time, the project will actually be able to go ahead.

The first part of the Streetcar Project would connect Downtown with the Over The Rhine area of Cincinnati. Over The Rhine is dominated by the type of pre-automobile-age inner suburban neighborhoods that struggle to cope with dominant automobile traffic, and indeed was part of the core market for streetcars back at the turn of the last century when Cincinnati had streetcars and was thinking of turning the old Canal alignment into a subway system.

And from the perspective of intercity rail transport, one would want to punch the air and cheer when the Streetcar has finished assembling its funding and can proceed … except …

… how does the 3C train get there?

They did WHAT? You have got to be kidding!

In the comments of the Transport Political story linked to above, I heard a comment that was difficult to believe:

Randy A. Simes | May 14th, 2010 at 10:15

The Riverfront Transit Center was intentionally designed to not be able to accommodate inter-city trains. The decision had something to do with ensuring freight rail didn’t return to Cincinnati’s riverfront, and those kind of trains use the same grade of track as freight trains. So, the Riverfront Transit Center can only accommodate commuter rail.

I tracked down a site that had collated information from Cincinnati Post articles on the subject, that suggested this was not entirely correct:

On February 12, Cincinnati and Hamilton County officials approved a design of the transit center that was only 85-feet wide.(10) The width initially eliminated the transit center from consideration as a transit hub for Amtrak’s passenger rail line.

In July, Cincinnati officials learned that the transit center may be able to accommodate the larger Amtrak passenger trains from other cities, contradicting prior reports that stated the transit center was too small.(7)(8) State officials stated that the trains are small enough to fit and that utility regulators would likely issue a variance to reduce the required overhead clearances to fit in an Amtrak train.(8)

7. Osbourne, Kevin. “Transit hub clears hurdle in planning.” Cincinnati Post 7 July 1999.

8. “Train Center.” Cincinnati Post 1 July 1999. 23 Sept. 2008: 19A.

10. Peale, Cliff. “Plan squeezes inter-city trains.” 13 Feb. 1999. Cincinnati Post 23 Sept. 2008: 12A.

However, the commenter at The Transport Politic indicated:

My comments are made from a direct conversation I had with the individual involved with designing the project with Parsons Brickerhoff. The topic came up to make the Riverfront Transit Center capable of holding Amtrak-style trains, but they decided not to. Height is only a concern for the “Superliners” or double-deck trains. The real issue is safety regulations that dictate extra precautions for trains of that magnitude. If the RTC were to be used for Amtrak-style trains, it would have to be majorly upgraded at more than likely a cost-prohibitive price tag.

So they built a so-called Transit Center, right near downtown and the ballpark and football stadium … and with the streetcars now to be running directly over the top of the transit center … which at present is mostly a bus parking lot …

… and designed it so that it cannot be the main hub for intercity trains.

Even worse, this is the alignment that is proposed to be used for commuter rail to the east and west … so if they had designed the Transit Center to accommodate intercity trains, the Stimulus II funding would be providing essential parts of the proposed commuter rail system as well.

Genius, I tells yah. Genius!

For more on the genius of the Cincinnati Transit Center, see The Transport Politic’s 2009 piece, Cincinnati’s Riverfront Transit Center Attracts Criticism.

Now, it may be that the 3C trains can be designed to qualify for a waiver to run into the Transit Center … but there are no guarantees until a waiver is granted.

Well, What About Union Station?

Aha, but surely Cincinnati at one time had intercity trains running through at fairly high frequency, and so had a central station?

Well yes. Cincinnati got onto the Union Station bandwagon late, and only started construction in 1928. Completed in 1933, it is described in”>The Great American Train Stations as, “one of America’s great Art Deco rail stations.”

Of course, there was not much need for a great Art Deco rail station when rail services were reduced to two trains per day after the collapse of Penn Central, and down to one train per day now. After the city taking over ownership in the 70’s, it finally was redeveloped as a Museum Center (under the leadership of such Cincinnati notables as then-mayor Jerry Springer).

For a time it actually lost its status as a rail terminus, with Amtrak moving to a location closer to the waterfront and downtown, but in the 90’s service was restored to CUT.

OK, so, why not use Cincinnati Union Terminal?

The CUT site was actually in the running for several rounds of alignment selection as Amtrak was identifying possible options for the various segments of the 3C starter line. It was in the final selection of options (pdf) that it was judged inferior to an alternative:

Reliability – From Columbus, Alternative 4 uses the NS Cincinnati mainline to and

beyond Sharonville. NS ownership ends at the NS Tower, several miles south of Sharonville, where the line enters CSX trackage rights. See the maps of the north segment (Figure 2-2) and the south segment (Figure 2-3) for additional detail.

NS, and predecessor Conrail, have long held trackage rights from NA south past Mitchell (Winton Place) to Colerain Avenue, one of the major interlockings near Queensgate Yard. Heavy traffic continues south to Tower A near the Museum Center. This distance, about seven miles, is one of the busiest and most significant freight routes in the country. Although owned by CSX, RailAmerica and Norfolk Southern operate the trains. In 2009, CSX reported that 70 to 80 trains per day typically use the segment from Colerain to Winton Place, where one of two routes to Hamilton diverges. From Winton Place to NA Tower, 35 to 40 trains per day operate, and almost as many on the segment north from NA Tower to Evandale (know as CP Mill by NS), where a second route to Hamilton diverges.

The segment from NA Tower to Tower A is largely grade separated, and primarily double track, with several crossovers and partial third main track. Owned by NS, this additional track was constructed with state assistance. The line experiences high levels of congestion because of trains moving at slow speeds to enter/leave yard trackage, and because of trains waiting on main trackage outside the yard for clearance to enter.

Amtrak Cardinal service currently operates a portion of this route, making a station stop at Museum Center. This train operates three times weekly during night hours, and has a poor history of on-time performance. Quick Start service would introduce six additional daily time-sensitive passenger movements.

Is there some cool oasis to rest from all this controversy

Where is the preferred alignment? This is the “Oasis” alignment, an unused freight corridor, running toward downtown from the east and ending just east of the stadium complex.

The map to the right from the Transport Politic shows the approved streetcar system in yellow (including Phase 2 to Uptown) and proposed extensions in dashed yellow. It also shows a section of the proposal commuter rail line in red, and a proposed light rail system in blue (this time the dashed blue is the underground section of the light rail system, using the longest segment of the never-used Cincinnati Subway).

As to why the light rail system was designed to be in two disconnected corridors – uhmm, you got me there.

The Oasis line is used by the red line coming in from the east, terminating a little east of the Red’s ballpark … just before the proposed commuter rail line in red and light rail line in blue connect with the proposed streetcar extension in yellow. This terminus is a block south of the transit center, so that a mile of new track connecting a little further to the east would be required to continue into the transit center.

Heading further east, the Oasis line runs by Theodore Berry park and the Boathouse Inn, which is just about where the Red line and Blue Line come together to run toward the Cincinnati Transit Center on the above map.

Access to this station would not require going through one of the busier freight rail yards in the country. It would also allow connection to the proposed metropolitan local transit lines, connecting into western Hamilton County and northern Kentucky. For multi-modal access, the terminus of the Oasis line would be superior, since it would allow connection with the proposed streetcar connection … but the Boathouse site would be a close second, and involve less interference with pedestrian traffic closer to the ballpark. And while not in use, the track already exists, saving a substantial amount over new track to continue into the Transit Center.

There is, however, a roadblock. As reported in Cincinnati’s CityBeat blog:

A second option, which was the one that helped score the federal grant, was a route that veered east from Sharonville through the city’s Eastern Corridor near Lunken Airport, before ending near the Montgomery Inn Boathouse along the Ohio River.

When Adams Landing condo owners and other nearby residents objected to that plan, the project designated Lunken as the temporary stop until another could be found.

Yup, Nimby’s, living in a fantasy world where car-dependency is the stable foundation for rising property values, raised a stink when they could have locked in a transport facility that would help ensure their property values for decades to come.

What To Do?

Now, the end of the Oasis Line is the best available terminus at the moment, but on the other hand if it was possible to fix the transit center, that would be a far superior intercity terminus.

Indeed, over the long term, the transit center would allow Appalachian Hub trains from Louisville to use the same rail bridge used by the Cardinal, and by turning east into the transit center rather connect directly into the end of the 3C corridor, without running into the busy rail yards to the west of Cincinnati Union Terminal.

And the $400m funding from the Federal Government is not enough to provide a dedicated passenger rail through the yards to the west of CUT, nor is it enough to reconstruct Transit Center to accomodate general intercity passenger trains – if either of those two were chosen, there would have to be an interim terminal built first, with the completion of the final terminal waiting on another round of investment.

And should a handful of property owners on the waterfront be allowed to hold the entire city up for ransom?

My idea is, I believe, a little radical, but still, could go a long way to resolving the issue: vote on it.

This is a county-wide facility, so the vote should be across all of Hamilton County.

And of course, there are multiple options, and forcing people to pick just one could easily see an option eliminated that is a second best choice of a majority, so my proposal is that the People of Hamilton County vote on their first and second preferences on two questions:

  • The First Question is the Designated Cincinnati 3C Station,
    • Cincinnati Union Terminal (“the Museum”), with an temporary terminus at Sharonville
    • The Oasis Terminal (“the Boathouse”)
    • The Cincinnati Transit Center via the Oasis line
  • The Second Question is, if Cincinnati Transit Center is designated, the Stage One terminus should be:
    • Sharonville
    • Highland Plaza
    • Cincinnati Municipal Airport
    • The Oasis Terminal

If none of the three options wins a majority, then the option coming in third is eliminated, and the second preferences of the people voting for that option are added to the two leading choices for an instant run-off.

If the Cincinnati Union Terminal is selected, there really is no real alternative to a temporary station at Sharonville. The problem with CUT is, after all, the congestion on the rail corridors between CUT and the beginning of the main line, which really requires new dedicated high priority track to fix … and the northern junction of I275 and I75 is the best access that can be provided if anywhere close to downtown is out of consideration.

However, if the Cincinnati Transit Center is selected, there is a range of choices for temporary station. The first is to adopt the end of the Oasis line as a temporary rather than as a permanent terminus. The second, further up the line, is to use Lunken Field, the municipal airport. The furthest up the line is the junction of I275 and I75 at Sharonville. And finally, there is a major shopping center complex at the junction of the Norwood Parkway and I71 that might be able to host a temporary terminal. Since Sharonville is on the border with Butler country, it would also avoid quibbling about a Hamilton-county-wide vote applying to a facility outside of Hamilton County.

So, only if the CTC is the designated permanent terminus, the top two of those four choices would be chosen for an instant run-off, with the second preferences of those voting for one of the other two added in to determine the temporary terminus.

The biggest advantage of a county-wide vote is that the decision, whichever it is, would have substantial political legitimacy, which would then be inherited by the 3C project as a whole. It would, for example, force the NIMBY’s on the waterfront at the end of the Oasis line to make their case to the broader community, rather than just threaten to raise a stink if the project does not bow to their short-sighted and, in terms of their long term property values, ultimately misplaced opposition to the Oasis terminal.

If the Cincinnati Station choice is seen to be the “will of the people”, the obstructionists lose their opportunity to use controversy over the station choice as an opportunity to raise Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt about the absolute necessity and total modesty of the Ohio Hub project and the 3C starter line to actually get started on getting the trains rolling.

One Local System to Rule Them All

Of course, one reason that intermodal is so hard in Cincinnati is all the proposals for different local transit lines all based on difference and incompatible vehicles.

But there is a solution to that problem, used in a growing number of regional cities in Germany, France, and Netherlands: what they call the “tram-train”, or what is more commonly called in the US, “Rapid Streetcar”.

The idea is that the access provided to downtown by a streetcar system is extended into the surrounding suburbs by providing a version of streetcar that can run in rail corridors. Now, this is harder to do in the US, because of the antiquated “slap some more steel on” approach to rail safety at the RTA, which makes it difficulty to run even upgraded streetcars on the same track as US freight trains.

On the other hand, light rail would be far cheaper to add within the corridor, where it is available – and many corridors in the Great Lakes and Midwest were laid out for four tracks – two-way local and two-way express – with only one bi-directional track in that at the moment. And it is less expensive to lay streetcar track in a rail corridor than heavy freight track.

Of course, while going through urban streets, streetcars do not operate at very high speed … but tram-trains are now designed with a top speed of about 60mph. And while providing overhead trolley wire is cheaper than providing heavy rail catenary … tram-trains are built with dual-power: electric overhead when running under the wires, and diesel when operating away from the electric rail network.

Looking at the above map, the proposed commuter rail system would be substantially more attractive if they offered streetcar stops through downtown, so that the eastern and western sides of the Commuter Rail corridor could be replaced by a Rapid Streetcar that runs from either side into downtown.

And looking further, there is the subway, which would be ideally suited for a Rapid Streetcar line running along the original Subway line (which was, after all, mostly above ground) … so that the eastern Rapid Streetcar alignments could run through downtown and then into the Subway into northwest Cincinnati, avoiding the “either/or” fight between east and west that is so dangerous to transit proposals in greater Cincinnati.

Once the Streetcar project gets the green light, and the voters of the city have designated the Cincinnati terminus of the Ohio Hub … the next step could well be finding a way to build on a system that was able to make the long awaited leap from drawing board to actual passenger service.

The Headliners: Dreamworld ~ Midnight Oil


  1. … see the wild horses?


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