What Lexington Needs: The New Bluegrass Special

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Did you or your parents ever ride the passenger trains in Kentucky before service was discontinued? Share your stories in a comment

By Kakie Urch

A businessman pulls up to the Bald Knob station, hops the 7:22 with his tie flying and is in his downtown Lexington office by 8 a.m.
A schoolgirl with extraordinary talent in science and dance gets on at Georgetown, commuting to her school in Lexington for advanced instruction and going after school for ballet practice before returning to the family farm.
Nicholasville Road is suddenly passable and greenhouse gasses are saved as people in Nicholasville train into work.  Shuttles from major Lexington employers depart on a regular basis from near Rupp Arena, like the Google shuttle that serves the Bay Area, making it cool to ride the bus.
A gaggle of folks speaking German cruise on foot from the train station to a Distillery District tour to the new Buster’s for some of Kentucky’s finest …. Whiskey and (our newfangled) Hillbilly Music…trailing Deutschmarks all the way.
A father gets 2 more hours a day w his kids because he can use the commute to work not fight the elements of Kentucky rain, snow and ice storm on I-75.  A grandmother in Covington can visit   UK researchers collaborate with ease with folks at Vanderbilt, Emory, Urbana-Champaign, Athens, Ga.
Productivity rises as folks work on the train.  Two-career marriages stay stronger as spouses are able to advance and move to companies in the entire Midwest region without someone having to move for the other’s job.
Foodies flock to Midway restaurants without having to limit their wine intake for the drive back.
We jump the high-speed at Rupp in the morning and are in Chicago in time to catch the Jesus Lizard set at Pitchfork Music Fest.  Alums jump the high-speed in Chicagoland, or Atlanta for that matter and they are where they need to be ….no parking woes….for Coach Cal and the tip.
The Golden Triangle of Lexington/Louisville/Cincinnati goes Platinum with the circulation of workforce, intellectual and creative capital and puts external Golden Angles out to towns along the route.
These are just some of the scenarios we could envision after our hearts stopped fluttering with the announcement of the RJ Corman Railroad Company’s plan to start a dinner train from downtown Lexington to Frankfort, with possible passenger service to come. 
What Lexington needs is a train….a smooth, reliable, possibly even high-speed….passenger train as part of its 21st century infrastructure.
Or the palpitations watching the Lexington Fayette Urban County Government and Lexington Center working fast and flexibly to consider the proposal that would put a train for people right where we want the people to be: downtown, near Rupp Arena and at the proposed Distillery District.
Corman, a Nicholasville businessman and FOC (friend of Calipari) who owns nine shortline railroads in seven states and has just purchased a Quebec, Canada company that specializes in making “green” train cars and technology needed a long-term lease for the piece of the Rupp Arena near parking lot that extends to the track on Cox St.
OK. He’s proposing , as the already successful operator of My Old Kentucky Dinner Train in Bardstown, a dinner train. An excursion train, possible passenger service. But he wants to do it now and fast. 
While state Transportation Cabinet officials are not currently doing any studies on rail and are not working with Corman, according to spokesman Chuck Wolfe, the cabinet may look later at the passenger possibility for the state. Lexington Mayor Jim Newberry said, “The city is excited about Mr. Corman’s proposal for the train line for downtown. We hope that Lexington Center will work with Mr. Corman to make this a reality and we encourage the Lexington Center Board to develop a small area plan for the Cox Street parking lot.”
And that excitement is reflected in the council and Lexington Center board’s quick address of the proposal.
Can this possibly be the beginning of you know, the Bluegrass Express, the Commonwealth Acela, and a tidy commuter line, our own MetroSouth? Can the area that right now is not served by Amtrak be part of President Obama’s stimulus investment in the high-speed rail that would link Chicago and Florida with places in between at 110-mph? Might I have my strawberry-rhubarb pie, in the sky?
We need to look back before we look forward.  And for that we’re talking long-term Kentucky history (Do recall that the L&N, which don’t stop here anymore, is named for its Louisville & Nashville original Civil War era route) and short-term Kentucky history (This is a good idea and smart people have considered it before, under the auspices of the Transportation Cabinet. Reports and facts exist).
But this may be a right moment in history for the railroads that once chris-crossed Kentucky carrying coal and Civil War munitions and people in their 1920s finery to move our new capital….people and talent along the line.
Indeed, in April, President Barack Obama made major announcements about high-speed rail , commiting billions in the $64 billion transportation portion of the stimulus plan to routes that would, like the Acela high speed train that runs from Boston to New York to Washington, link the Midwest in a similar way. And the routes just miss Lexington—- one is proposed to Cincinnati’s Union Station. One is proposed to Louisville (both these cities are routes on current Amtrak lines).  How can you go Chicago to Orlando via Atlanta without hitting Lexington?
Just saying, but if we’re getting rid of the old Rupp Arena, wouldn’t it make a GREAT railroad station complex?
Some states are already in line to take part in this stimulus….but California, which has a major bid…is in some serious financial trouble and may not be able to move along with its portion, despite a voter initiative approving it. And then, there’s the issue of the San Andreas Fault.
Do we have the wherewithal, do we have the will, do we have the right of way?
These are questions to look at before we carve up our pie in the sky and people who are veterans of the successful Rails to Trails reinvigoration will tell you how much work, redtape and collaboration is necessary to make this pie.
The 2009 Railroad report, available in PDF chapters at the Transportation Department’s Web site outlines in its Passenger Rail section, how the state, in conjunction with local municipalities, has considered rail…from Cincinnati to Lexington to alleviate I-71/75 traffic, from Cincinnati and Louisville to the Midwest and South (with, sniff, shuttle bus service to Lexington) and along the old routes like the “Whiskey Run” from Frankfort to Paris with stops at Elsinore, Georgetown and Stamping Ground. As of the report’s 2008 fashioning, most of these ideas were deemed not feasible for lack of funding. But the consultants stressed, in most of the scenarios, that the proposals might be considered if conditions change.
Conditions have changed.  The Internet has connected our brains and our projects, the economy has pressed our traditional approaches and things are very different than they were in February 2008. The infrastructure of the financial system has crumbled and is being rebuilt.  Part of that is a brand-new look at nationwide physical infrastructure and the way we circulate capital.
Obama called the high-speed rail hopes that would bring the U.S. in line with France, Spain and Japan “the most sweeping investment in our infrastructure since President Eisenhower built the Interstate Highway System in the 1950s.”
RJ Corman’s idea to innovate with what we’ve got here in a larger context seems to warrant another look at rail in Kentucky.
After all, someone in the mid-1800s once looked at the impossible, impassable overgrown wilderness around Black Mountain in Harlan County and said….that’s a big mountain with a lot of coal.  All we have to do is turn it inside out and get it to New York.
Let’s mine Kentucky’s new valuable resources of intellectual capital and people, get them to New York—- and home in time for supper.  With strawberry-rhubarb pie.

Kakie Urch is an assistant professor in the University of Kentucky’s School of Journalism and Telecommunications.

  • http://thelexingtonstreetsweeper.blogspot.com/ The Lexington Streetsweeper

    Kakie, I share your enthusiasm for passenger rail and hope that you can keep your wide eyed wonder, but there are a few real life hurdles to get over before commuter rail for Lexington becomes a reality.

    First, Mr Corman may own a railroad and a dinner train but he leases the tracks from CSXT Corp. and the have a say in what may or may not be hauled along those tracks.  It is my understanding that currently the lease says that he may haul the aluminum ingots, sand and cement from Louisville and service the local industries of Lexington.  Passenger revenue service is NOT allowed. That is why when he ran the steam locomotive from Louisville last year there were no paying passengers, though many would have loved to go.

    I also have questioned his location of a boarding station near the rear of The Lexington Center.  With a new arena and the re-purposing of the old Rupp building ( they are not tearing it down) I believe that placing the station on the west side of the rail yard, across from the Distillery District proper would make a better impression on dinner patrons.  Parking would be available and the two could assist each other.

    In terms of high speed rail,as the Obama administration has defined it, this is barely faster than the steam locomotives were doing in the ‘20s and ‘30s of which you so fondly wrote.  The rest of the world thinks that high speed rail (HSR) is twice to three times that.  Our rails, and especially those to Louisville are not ready for high speed.  The current plans show connections to Cincinnati and Louisville(though at this time the Louisville Amtrak connection is a bus ride to Indianapolis to meet the Cardinal ) and a more logical alignment of HSR would connect Louisville to Nashville, bypassing Lexington, due to the higher populations of those cities.  Lexington does not have sufficient population to warrant HSR at this time.

    Maybe our best bet lies in the Norfolk Southern line to Cincinnati.  Just the other day the CEO of NS spoke to a Virginia news paper about his thoughts of the future for the railroad.  In the ten years since acquiring half the assets of the defunct Conrail, NS has expanded their service greatly and now can see the possibility of reestablishing passenger rail of some type He has stated that it is being given consideration. 

    The State’s Transportation Cabinet report is set up to connect the three cities airports with high speed rail, although of the three only Louisville’s is in any proximity to a rail line.  That premise alone would doom any implementation scenario.

    Again, I applaud you for your piece but don’t think that it will happen for a long while.

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