New potential Amtrak routes include a connection between Athens and Columbus, which, if fulfilled, would return passenger train service between the two cities for the first time since the 1940s.
The map of new “Corridors of Interest” — which builds upon the Amtrak Connects Us maps released last year — was discussed at a meeting of the agency’s board of directors last week in St. Louis, according to a report in Trains Magazine.
When the Amtrak Connects Us maps — which would expand service to and from Columbus for the first time since 1979 — were released in April 2021, it seemed unlikely that southeast Ohio would see direct rail access, according to a report in the Athens Messenger.
The new Corridors of Interest maps were created as part of the Federal Railroad Administration’s Corridor Identification and Development program, which solicited proposals for new, returning or expanded passenger rail service from governments and planning bodies.
The new Ohio routes — which also include a spur from Columbus to Chillicothe, a new connection between Cincinnati and Nashville through Louisville and a route from Columbus to Pittsburgh — were submitted by a bipartisan group of mayors and regional planning organizations, according to a release from advocacy group All Aboard Ohio.
The Columbus-Athens route was submitted by the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission, the Columbus region’s planning council. That agency did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.
Criteria that the U.S. Department of Transportation must consider when awarding funds through the program include “the benefits to rural communities” and “whether the corridor would enhance the regional equity and geographic diversity of intercity passenger rail service.”
To implement the route, local officials would need to address how to re-lay the rails that were ripped up between Athens and Nelsonville, where the city’s train station would be, and how to best capitalize on the economic development that reconnected rail service would bring, said Stu Nicholson, executive director of All Aboard Ohio.
The route could end up being run as commuter rail, rather than an Amtrak line, Nicholson said; the Corridor ID program doesn’t require funded programs to be operated by Amtrak. “The important thing is that what this map does, and what the Corridor ID program does, is that it basically preserves the possibility that you could see passenger rail on any of these corridors,” he said in an interview, “because now it’s officially on the planning books for the Federal Railroad Administration.”
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However, he added, “We need to have the state of Ohio take more of a lead than it’s doing in terms of pursuing these projects.” The Ohio Rail Development Commission, which last year was ordered to conduct a study of rail expansion in Ohio by Gov. Mike DeWine, did not respond to a request for comment Thursday. When contacted by Cleveland.com, a spokesperson for DeWine was noncommittal about seeking new money from the federal government.
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