Editorial: Passenger rail service in Columbus worth studying

Stepping onto a train in Columbus to be whisked down the line to Chicago or Louisville — and potentially points beyond — is a charming notion that to date exists only on the drawing boards of Amtrak and regional planners.

Whether the idea gains traction is a question that likely will take years to answer.

Nevertheless, the planners who envision revitalized passenger rail service along the Interstate 65 corridor have some powerful key local allies. For instance, Cummins Inc. boss Jennifer Rumsey was a vocal supporter of federal legislation passed in 2021 that, among other things, set aside $66 billion for passenger and freight rail improvements.

As The Republic’s Andy East reported, the legislation included money for studies around the country for more passenger rail service. One of the proposed routes where service could be restored is the line from Chicago to Louisville. A train route last carried passengers on the former Amtrak Cardinal route in 2003.

As East reported, “The Kentuckiana Regional Planning and Development Agency is in the process of finalizing an agreement with the Federal Railroad Administration on the terms of a $500,000 grant awarded in December to look at potential passenger rail service between Louisville and Indianapolis.”

Even on railroad planning timetables, these things tend to move exceedingly slowly, and it’s not at all clear whether there would be consistent ridership demand to make such a route viable. That should be the central consideration for any studies on expanding rail service.

That said, if there is demand for service, a stop in Columbus would make sense given our location roughly halfway between Indy and Louisville.

But where that stop might be planned is undetermined, because as East reported, city officials are sensitive to making sure any stops wouldn’t unduly block traffic. Being early in the planning stages, officials haven’t been actively involved in studies.

Another consideration is that the tracks would need some upgrades in order to facilitate higher speeds expected for passenger rail service.

“Right now, the speed limit on the Louisville & Indiana Railroad tracks, which run under the railroad overpass on Columbus’ west side, is 49 miles per hour, considerably slower than interstate speed limits,” East reported.

“’There are upgrades on many different levels that would have to be made (to accommodate passenger rail), and it goes beyond just track infrastructure,’ John Goldman, president of the Louisville & Indiana Railroad, told The Republic.”

If there is passenger rail in Columbus’ future, it’s clearly years down the line. But the question has merit, because improvements in rail service can be investments that pay off in multiple ways beyond just offering additional passenger transportation options. Those improvements can make our area more attractive to businesses that rely on rail shipping. Increasing rail service speed, reliability, capacity and connectivity has the additional benefit of relieving heavy truck traffic on crowded interstates.

For those reasons and more, the prospect of passenger rail serving Columbus is one that deserves serious study.