The future … everywhere but Louisville,

As we told you last week, Kentuckiana Regional Planning & Development Agency, or KIPDA, is conducting a feasibility study for light rail running along the Dixie Highway corridor, connecting those people who want to live in Louisville while working at Fort Knox’s Human Resources Command.

Still, light rail from Fort. Knox is not passenger train service, especially for a city like Louisville that was once a railroad hub.

Louisville is the L in L&N. We have the tracks, the population, the central location – hell, we even still have the grand old Art Deco station – we just don’t have the train coming through.

In 2001, when a national high-speed rail system was envisioned, Louisville was one of the cities on the line. But that vision is still just that. So to take the train to Chicago, you either have to take a bus to Indianapolis or drive to Cincinnati.

You can catch the train – either north to Chicago or east to Washington D.C. – in Maysville. Also Ashland. But not Louisville.

And to underscore the irony, Amtrak calls it the Cardinal line! I don’t think it was named that with Cincinnati or Chicago in mind.

Most people you talk to blame our diminished hopes on the failure of the train service a decade ago. “It became an embarrassment,” says Ross Capon, president of the National Association of Rail Passengers (NARP). “Few people rode it because it was so slow and inconvenient – an eight or nine-hour ride with no sleeping car.”

“For some reason, Amtrak took the sleeping cars away during the summer and sent them to Texas, where there was evidently more need,” says Schneider, who is NARP’s Kentucky council representative and at one time was branch manager of the Kentucky Cabinet’s Division of Multi-Modal Programs. “And then there was a big crash on the New York-to-Florida auto train, and all the sleepers were sent there. But by then, I think Amtrak was about ready to give up on the service here anyway.”

“There just wasn’t enough local interest,” says Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari. “The tracks in place from Louisville to Indianapolis were fine for freight service, but not for the higher-speed train travel that would make riding the train more efficient than driving. If it was going to take eight hours to ride the train versus three or four to drive, people might take the train once, for curiosity, but not regularly enough to justify the service.”

But David Coyt, president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Regional Transportation, has another explanation.

“They were completely dysfunctional in terms of useful service,” Coyt said. “Do you know when those trains ran? In the middle of the night. If a train gets in at 3 in the morning, it’s not entirely conducive to use it. And then they took the sleeper cars off.

“Who’d want to sit up all night?”

He surmises this wasn’t entirely accidental. “Decisions were made,” he said, darkly, “that doomed this service. The city of Louisville and the Commonwealth of Kentucky never fought for this service.”

Why?

“Because we love our highways,” he said. “There are tremendously powerful highway lobbies – construction, oil and gas, trucking, the teamsters, plus ambulance-chasing lawyers – that don’t want to see passenger rail succeed here. Plus GLI has never seen a highway it doesn’t like.”

It apparently is not just Kentucky.

Coyt points out that Ohio, Wisconsin and Florida all had robust plans for funding short-range rail travel within their states until they elected Republican governors to replace Democratic incumbents.

“The Republicans are more highway-oriented than railroad-oriented,” Coyt whispers, “more big business-oriented than consumer-oriented.”

But Kentucky has a Democratic governor. “More or less,” Coyt says. “Isn’t he the one who told the EPA to go away?”

The Midwest High Speed Rail Association, an influential advocacy group, recently published a wish list that it believes is entirely feasible. It includes high-speed tracks radiating out of Chicago that reach out to and connect up with Toledo and Detroit, Cleveland and Pittsburgh, Indianapolis and Cincinnati, Champaign, Ill., and St. Louis, Milwaukee, Minneapolis and St. Paul.

All the major metropolitan hubs.

These are tracks capable of carrying trains going 125 mph.

There are also, though, slightly slower rail lines (90 mph to 125 mph) in the network, going to Columbus, Ohio, Des Moines, Omaha, Green Bay.

What about Louisville? A thinner “conventional” (i.e., slower) line on the map juts down from Indianapolis. But at least we’re on the map.

However, another map that shows “progress highlights” has no Louisville – not even the promising Louisville-Frankfort-Lexington train.

Everyone insists it’s being studied, and why not? Imagine preparing a presentation in your railroad seat on the way to Frankfort versus trying to rehearse while driving. Imagine sleeping off an exciting Kentucky football win in the train car versus driving home at night after imbibing way too much happiness.

It makes so much sense it induces headaches. But not as big a headache as maneuvering through all that construction on Interstate- 64 just east of the Gene Snyder Expressway that has been going on, it seems, since Adolph Rupp coached the Wild Cats.

To be fair, it gets complicated.

For one thing, under the 2008 reauthorization of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act (PRIIA), states are now responsible for all routes shorter than 750 miles.

That means construction, maintenance, repair, improvements and operations. And a bulk of that cost would go to rewiring crossing gates that have been calibrated for freight trains approaching at 60 miles per hour.

A passenger train at 80 mph would hit the crossing 33 percent faster, before the gates had a chance to come all the way down.

With the burden falling on the Commonwealth, “I’m not sure Kentucky has even bothered to look at it,” says Amtrak’s Magliari. He did say that Amtrak is currently working with Indiana’s Department of Transportation and legislature to fund regular, more frequent service between Indianapolis and Chicago, starting in November. “There might be an opportunity to extend that service to Louisville,” Magliari says, “if Kentucky were interested.”

That interest is clearly dampened by the thing that brings nearly all progress to a halt these days: money! And the Bridges Project gets most of the loose change.

And so we wait. I recently took the train to a business meeting in Chicago – partly because air travel is so unpleasant, tiring and expensive; and partly because I just wanted to relive the experience of my youth.

The roomette I purchased made the overnight travel bearable.

The meal service on board was excellent. The cab ride to my downtown Chicago hotel was 15 minutes and $8 from Union Station rather than 120 minutes and $50 from O’Hare Airport.

And on my return trip, when a rainstorm of Biblical proportions flooded Chicago’s Kennedy Expressway and flights were being delayed and cancelled, my train pulled out of Union Station right on time.

But I had to drive to Cincinnati to catch the train. I couldn’t even take a bus to the train because, for some reason, Amtrak doesn’t offer that (though it does offer a bus to Indianapolis to catch the same train).

The mayor’s Vision Louisville program is an exercise in envisioning how life here could look in 25 years.

Among the committees is a Connectivity Committee examining improving “the overall connectivity through parks, transit and bike/pedestrian networks,” chaired by Shively Mayor Sherry Conner. But mayor’s spokesman Chris Poynter told me the focus of the city is more on inner-city connectivity, not so much on connecting Louisville to Chicago or New York.

“I’d say that right now, there’s not an outcry,” Poynter said. “The vision is more focused on how we connect within the circumference of the metropolitan area.”

Of course, vision can go forward – and also backward. Right now, Louisville’s vision seems to be glued to the rear view mirror, on “The Great Gatsby.”

Because, yes, the book “The Great Gatsby” in 1925 referenced a Louisville that was an important Midwestern train hub, the kind of city where:

In June, [Daisy] married Tom Buchanan of Chicago, with more pomp and circumstance than Louisville ever knew before. He came down with a hundred people in four private rail cars, and hired a whole floor of the Seelbach Hotel, and the day before the wedding he gave her a string of pearls valued at three hundred and fifty thousand dollars.

But the movie “The Great Gatsby” in 2013 can only reflect on that Louisville of Daisy and Tom Buchanan. We’ve gotten all silly about the movie, treating it as if this is still the Louisville where four private rail cars will transport 100 people down from Chicago for a wedding.

But the fact is, we’re not that Louisville anymore, unless we want to be. Today, the Buchanan party from Chicago would have to get off the train in Indianapolis and onto a Greyhound bus for the rest of the trip.

Because the train doesn’t stop here anymore.

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Steve Kaufman
Steve Kaufman has been writing professionally since the Johnson administration (Lyndon, not Andrew) on all manner of subjects, from sports to city hall to sales and marketing to running a medical practice to designing stores. His journey has taken him from Chicago to Buffalo to New York to Atlanta to Cincinnati, before landing, finally, in Louisville.

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