By Andy East | For The Tribune
Amtrak has proposed a new passenger rail line that would connect Louisville to Chicago with a stop in nearby Columbus along the way.
The route, part of Amtrak’s plans to expand passenger rail service nationwide, would pass underneath the railroad overpass at the intersection of State Road 46 and State Road 11 on Columbus’ west side and include stops in downtown Indianapolis and the Indianapolis International Airport, according to a proposal posted on Amtrak’s website.
As currently proposed, there would be four round trips daily from Chicago to Louisville, meaning passenger trains would pass through Columbus eight times each day — four times in each direction.
Passengers boarding a northbound train in Columbus would stop in downtown Indianapolis, followed by the Indianapolis International Airport, Crawfordsville, Lafayette, Rensselaer, Dyer and downtown Chicago. Passengers heading south from Columbus would stop in Jeffersonville and Louisville.
Currently, it is unclear how long it would take to travel from Columbus to Indianapolis, Louisville or Chicago by train on the proposed route, though the trains would reach speeds of up to 110 miles per hour in some areas.
Amtrak says it would take about 5 hours, 45 minutes to travel from Louisville to Chicago and 3 hours, 35 minutes from Indianapolis to Chicago.
However, the proposal is more of an idea at this point than a firm plan, said Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari. And whether a route would end up going through Columbus will likely depend on a number of factors, including the fate of an infrastructure bill in Congress and what local communities, metropolitan planning organizations, the Indiana Department of Transportation and others have to say about it.
“Should a route develop between Chicago, Indy and Louisville … we think a good place for a stop would be Columbus,” Magliari said. “But we’re a long way from being able to sell you a ticket.”
Mill Race station?
Currently, it is unclear where a potential Amtrak station would be located in Columbus.
The process of determining a location for a stop involves numerous stakeholders, Magliari said. The first step generally involves a local conversation in which the community would identify a suitable location for a station.
Then Amtrak would approach the owner of the tracks, in this case the Louisville and Indiana Railroad, and ask, “‘Does this work for you? Does it obstruct traffic? Can it be reliable?’ And begin the conversation that way,” Magliari said.
One location city officials have kicked around as a potential candidate to house an Amtrak station is the bus location near Mill Race Center, said Columbus Mayor Jim Lienhoop.
“We think that the current bus location by Mill Race Center offers an option, although it’s kind of close to two other crossings,” Lienhoop said. “We wouldn’t want to tie up traffic while the train stops.”
That location would form a first-of-its-kind link between downtown Columbus and downtown Indianapolis and Louisville. Amtrak does not appear to have ever served Columbus, though some of its trains have passed through the city in the past, Magliari said.
A downtown station also could capitalize on the close proximity to restaurants, attractions and Cummins offices. It would also allow people to park in downtown Columbus, hop on a train and be Indianapolis, Louisville, Chicago or elsewhere in a matter of hours — and even catch a flight in Indianapolis.
However, no decisions have been made, city officials said. But Lienhoop said he is open to the idea of having an Amtrak stop in the city and has been “a railroad fan for a number of years.”
Lienhoop said he received a phone call from an Amtrak representative about a year ago and was informed the nation’s passenger railroad was planning to propose a stop in Columbus and “might like a little bit of help from the local community in the construction and establishment of a terminal or a station.”
The city has not heard any further details from Amtrak since then. There are no estimates on how fast the project would chug along, if at all, or be completed.
Putting in a passenger rail station presents a host of challenges, city officials said.
“It’s not an easy task,” said Columbus City Engineer Dave Hayward. “Generally, in most places, there’s a grade difference between the top of the rails and the surrounding ground. The other challenge is finding a location where, when the train stops for several minutes, it doesn’t block multiple streets.”
Other unknowns include the extent to which the railroad tracks would need to be upgraded to accommodate passenger trains that can travel up to 110 miles per hour, which is considerably faster than freight trains currently running between Louisville and Indianapolis.
Or who would pay for them.
Right now, the speed limit on the railroad is 49 miles per hour, John Goldman, president of the Louisville and Indiana Railroad, said Friday.
“I would say that it’s a very large undertaking, likely to be very expensive due to safety concerns and complex engineering, along with technological and infrastructure upgrades,” Goldman said.
But Goldman said he has not received any other information from Amtrak and was unaware of where any proposed stops would be.
Goldman said the Louisville and Indiana Railroad received a letter from Amtrak in April, notifying the railroad that the proposed route was under consideration.
“I’m guessing our route was put on the list solely because back in the early 2000s, Amtrak ran across us for a brief amount of time,” he said.
One of the biggest question marks is funding, however.
The route that could go through Columbus is one of several nationwide proposed by Amtrak after President Joe Biden announced his sweeping $1 trillion plan to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure.
The version of the bill that cleared the Senate includes $66 billion proposed for freight and passenger rail, which would be the largest federal investment in passenger rail service since Amtrak was founded 50 years ago, The Associated Press reported.
Amtrak has not been profitable since being created by Congress in 1971, sparking disagreements on Capitol Hill over the years, according to The New York Times.
The bill, which is currently pending in the House, also sets aside $250 million in competitive grants administered by the Federal Railroad Administration for operational support of new routes, which would reduce costs for states and local government, Magliari said.
“Should the House go along with the Senate, (it would) create a funding program that would be competitive and much more attractive to states and local governments than ever before,” Magliari said. “That (funding) would help make this (route) possible.”
But the locations of proposed routes in Indiana also are driven by metropolitan planning organizations and the Indiana Department of Transportation.
INDOT, which is in the process of updating its state rail plan, isn’t saying much about the proposed route.
“It’s too early to speculate on the impact of federal infrastructure legislation on Amtrak services,” INDOT spokeswoman Cassy Bajek said.
Locally, the question of funding looms large. City officials say they would have to “start from scratch” as no station currently exists in Columbus.
“We wonder how well it will be funded and the long-term commitment to that funding,” Lienhoop said. “We basically have to start from scratch, and so it will be a very expensive proposition. We’ll just have to wait and see what kind of appetite people have for that.”
Some other locations along the proposed line, such as Lafayette, already have an operating train station in the downtown area, built when its railroad relocation project moved the rail tracks to a line along the Wabash River.
While many questions remain, if the route were to come to fruition and include a stop in Columbus, it’s possible the train would be powered by the city’s largest employer, Cummins.
“Columbus is always on our mind because we just started taking delivery of new locomotives with Cummins diesels in them,” Magliari said. “And three years ago, we began operating new locomotives also with Cummins diesels in them. Columbus is a high point for us.”