Editor's note, A previous version of this article stated Amtrak operated a line that connected Cincinnati, Columbus, and Cleveland. Amtrak only operated a line that connected Columbus to other parts of the country until 1979.
Connecting Athens by passenger rail to the “Three C’s” — Columbus, Cincinnati and Cleveland — could prove a complicated endeavor due to a lack in exiting rail infrastructure in the county and the need for involvement from many jurisdictions.
Last week, Amtrak, the nation’s public rail provider, publicized a map it calls “Vision to Grow Rail Service Across America” on its website. This comes after President Joe Biden announced last week he was seeking nearly $80 billion in extra funding for the national rail service as a part of his recently unveiled $2 trillion infrastructure plan.
The map has since raised discussion among Ohio residents how a connection of passenger rail to the three C’s could change public transportation throughout the state.
The proposed plan would include connection to the three largest cities in the region and would expand connection to nationwide lines. The initial concept is to have three round trips per day, with stations in other communities placed along the route, including Dayton, The Ohio Capital Journal reported.
However, southeast Ohio would be largely excluded from the proposed rail expansion.
Stu Nicholson, director of All Aboard Ohio, a railway transportation advocacy group, said Ohio hasn’t had proper interstate passenger rail connection in years.
Rail transit connected Columbus until 1979, on a line between between Kansas City and New York/Washington, D.C., via St. Louis, Indianapolis, Dayton and Pittsburgh
And for southeast Ohio, he said, the destruction of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad line that connected Chicago to Washington D.C., which had a stop in Nelsonville, severely damaged passenger rail capabilities.
“The problem here is that there’s no tracks left,” Nicholson said. “Athens (County’s) situation is a classic example of what happens when the trains go away and the tracks get ripped up,” Nicholson said.
Athens still has a railway, The Hocking Valley Scenic Railway, which is primarily used as a tourism draw and does not service passengers between destinations — and hasn’t for years.
The railway used by the Hocking Valley Scenic Railway used to ferry passengers from Athens and Nelsonville to the southern Columbus area, until the late 1940s, the railway website stated.
Passenger service ended on the lines south of Columbus in 1949, and many depots ultimately were torn down. Freight service dropped off over time, with the line through Nelsonville finally coming to an end in the early 1980s, according to the railway’s ‘About Us’ page.
The Messenger inquired with multiple rail transit authorities to see why Athens County and southeast Ohio at large were excluded from passenger rail connection.
Marc Magliari, spokesperson for the Chicago region of Amtrak, said he has received inquiries from across the region serviced by Chicago, from people asking why their area wasn’t included on the proposed plan.
“That map is not meant to be limiting — it’s a starting — not a completion,” Magliari said.
He added the map was “aspirational,” and by no means a master plan.
Magliari said many different transit authorities, including the Ohio Department of Transportation, and more specifically, the Ohio Rail Development Commission, have more authority in planning rail and funding it than Amtrak.
“If there are aspirations at the state and regional level, we’d love to hear,” Magliari said. “Those are the channels to make your desires known.”
He also said legislators down to the local level can be a driving force in expanding passenger rail access.
“Whom do you send to city hall, who do you send to Columbus to represent you, and whom you send to Washington whom will represent you,” Magliari said. “Ultimately those people have a role to play, too.”
Wende Jourdan, spokesperson for the ORDC, said the ODOT and ORDC had been briefed on the Amtrak plan, but the bill was introduced at the federal level and did not require Ohio’s action.
“At the current time the role of the state in the plan is not clear and we are not aware of any needed action by Ohio at this time,” Jourdan said via email. “We look forward to hearing more about what Amtrak’s proposal could mean to Ohio as the federal transportation bill advances through that process.”
Matt Bruning, regional spokesperson for ODOT, said the ORDC is an independent commission that ODOT funds and deferred comment to that commission.
Voting members, including the chairman, are appointed by the governor; the Speaker of the House and the Senate President each appoint one voting member, and the directors of Transportation and the Development Services Agency serve on the board.
Nicholson was the spokesperson for ORDC for years, under former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland. He said passenger rail connections between three C’s returned under that governor’s administration, but former Gov. John Kasich scrapped those plans.
Nicholson said an extension that follows along State Route 33 to Columbus would be a major boon for the region.
He said it would not only connect residents of Athens, Nelsonville and Logan to health care services and jobs, it would also bring some of that workforce to southeast Ohio.
Getting the ball rolling on a major passenger rail connection along State Route 33, he said, would require the involvement of numerous local, county and metropolitan authorities banding together to develop such a project — even down to the mayor of Athens.
“Maybe the mayor of Athens would step up and say ‘this is something we need,’” Nicholson said. “If enough political clout could be put together form the southeast part of the state, I have no doubt a commuter rail line could work.”
Athens Mayor Steve Patterson did not immediately return requests for comment.
Passenger rail service could also alleviate congestion along State Route 33, be a draw for tourism or even as a promotional element for Ohio University.
“Even in the case of Ohio University, if you had a commuter rail connection between Athens and Columbus, it gives them a way to market the school,” Nicholson said.
The idea for public passenger rail has been planted, but whether it gets any attention is what matters, he said.
“I think it’s a seed that was already planted but nobody’s bothered to put any water on it or fertilize it,” Nicholson said.
The Athens Messenger also sought comment from Athens County residents on Facebook, for how they would feel about passenger rail being extended to the region.
One Millfield resident, Jasmine Facun, 40, said she would like to see passenger rail expanded to the area, and connect larger cities.
“Appalachia has been segregated in a lot of ways from much of the rest of the country,” Facun said. “Giving rural people more access to mobility can create opportunities to reap and share cultural and economic resources.”
She said when she lived elsewhere, she would regularly use Amtrak to travel between cities.
“It was an affordable way to get around the country for someone who didn’t have a car,” Facun said.
Another Athens County resident, McCray Powell, of Nelsonville, also said he would like to see passenger rail in the area.
He said rail would increase access to other cities in the state without needing a car.
“We live in a very isolated region and Columbus, Cincinnati, and Cleveland being just a train ticket away as opposed to needing a driver’s license, car, and gas money would be very liberating for a lot of people in our community,” Powell said on Facebook.
He also thinks it would be a great way to commute between Nelsonville and Athens. Although he likes the bus service provided by local nonprofit Hocking Athens Perry Community Action, he doesn’t believe it goes far enough.
“The small bus we have is really nice but doesn’t run too late to make it an option to getting back home after events in either community,” Powell said.
Other Athens County residents, however, are more skeptical about the prospects of passenger rail service in the county.
David Kurz, 68, of Athens, said rail service expansions take time, and pointed toward California’s plan to build high speed rail service, which has been fraught with delays, as The Los Angeles Times reported.
“Any U.S. project for new passenger rail service is always on the slow train,” Kurz said on Facebook. “In the meantime, we should all support expanding bus lines.”
Dana Delameter Wright, 50, of Athens, said the idea is great in theory, but Amtrak’s model requires them to rent time from freight rail lines like CSX, which causes freight to be prioritized over passenger rail.
Unlike passenger rail providers in many other countries, Amtrak operates most of its service on tracks owned by private freight railroads, states and other public authorities, think-tank The Center for American said in a report. Amtrak owns only 28 percent of the 21,300 route miles it covers.
Delameter Wright said on Facebook that this caused delays in travel time with Amtrak in other parts of the country, and wants to see those issues resolved before any talk of expanding routes.
“So until that is ironed out and passenger travel can be reliable/on-time— it will be a hard sell,” she wrote.