Illinois Assistant Majority Leader Kam Buckner has laid out a vision for using publicly-owned electrified railroad tracks in two states as the core asset for modern passenger rail expansion. But first, the two agencies that own and operate commuter trains need to...
Amtrak is proposing a major expansion in Ohio that would restore service to Columbus—the largest U.S. city that doesn’t have it—and expand service to most of the state’s major and mid-sized cities, according to recent reports. A rail advocacy group, All Aboard Ohio, called it “the boldest thing that Amtrak’s ever done in its history.”
The plan comes at a pivotal moment for the future of passenger trains in the United States. President Biden’s Transportation Secretary, Pete Buttigieg, is a strong advocate for conventional rail and has elevated high-speed rail to a top priority.
Amtrak’s plan reportedly calls for new or expanded service on several routes. A new route would connect Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, and Dayton; and service between Cincinnati and Chicago, via Indianapolis, would be expanded to several daily round-trips. There would also be a new line from Cleveland to Detroit, via Toledo, along with additional service from Cleveland to Buffalo and to Pittsburgh.
Amtrak has not confirmed these details, and the plan’s fate will depend on funding from Congress.
The plan creates several opportunities for rail advocates to push for actions and investments that have big effects well beyond Ohio. For example, getting it done will require strong relationships and collaboration with the freight railroads. Those relationships are key to improving passenger rail in the U.S. generally. The new and expanded routes will require new trainsets, which will boost manufacturing nationwide.
Local and state-level leaders have the influence and the connections to move the needle on the plan’s progress. They can get engaged right away by helping to identify station sites and funding.
A strong showing by grassroots advocates can convince them that it’s in Ohio’s interests—as well as their own. They need to hear from us right now about why we support the plan.
And there’s plenty to talk about. Amtrak’s new focus on expanding service is a major step forward. It’s also timely. In addition to the Biden administration’s enthusiasm, Congress has shown strong support for increased Amtrak service. Last February, in fact, the House majority released a plan that called for $55 billion in passenger-rail investments over five years. The chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR), said on the plan’s release that it was “past time for transformational investments” in U.S. infrastructure.
The plan has strong local support, too. “Why would anyone oppose this?” a member of the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s editorial board, Victor Ruiz, wrote in response to requests for opinions on it. “Our parochial thinking in Ohio has us missing out on opportunities that can truly transform our economy. Let’s expand our thinking instead of continuing to push ideas that lead nowhere.”
Needed: A Big-Picture Vision
Amtrak’s plans in Ohio make it clear that—to maximize our investments—we need a big-picture framework for passenger-rail service in the U.S.
For example, a new high-speed line from Chicago to Fort Wayne (IN) would improve service to not only northern Indiana but to Toledo, Cleveland, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and more. So, with improved Amtrak service throughout Ohio and a relatively short high-speed line from Chicago to Fort Wayne, the entire region could be dramatically more connected.
It’s a great example of how targeted investments—and integrated high-speed and conventional lines, guided by a vision—could have a transformative impact.
Rep. Seth Moulton (D-MA) has introduced a bill that would create a framework for a national HSR framework and invest $205 billion in passenger trains over five years. Let your representatives in Congress know that you support this legislation specifically—and, more broadly, the creation of a blueprint for a national HSR network.
If you live in Ohio, please also contact your local and state representatives about Amtrak’s plan. And don’t forget to sign the Alliance’s petition to Congress for a new vision of the U.S. transportation system—one that puts passenger trains front and center.
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