On the right track

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

On the morning of Sept. 30, 1979, an Amtrak passenger train left Kansas City and sped east through the heartland: across central Missouri to St. Louis, up through Illinois and Indiana and into western Ohio. En route to New York City, the locomotive entered Columbus and ground slowly to a halt amid the industrial abyss beneath Downtown's Fourth Street overpass.

Just two years prior, the National Limited would have raced into Union Station, a High Street depot once heralded as one of the most stunning in the country. But the station was gone - razed to make room for a Downtown convention center - so this train came to a stop at a windowless, metal hut surrounded by overgrown shrubs.

It was known simply as the "The Amshack."

During the peak of the city's railroad network, more than 160 trains per day chugged through Columbus, clogging the three union depots that served the epicenter of a growing metropolis over the years.

By 1979, train numbers had dwindled dramatically. Only one passenger line remained, rolling through town twice daily. For a while it came so late that locals took to calling it the "Nocturnal Limited."

Amtrak had struggled since its creation in 1970, and the National Limited was not immune to declining revenue and increased transit competition, fewer riders and less interest.

Only hours after leaving Columbus, on Oct. 1, 1979, the National Limited was canceled.

Today, of the 20 largest cities in the United States, Columbus is one of two without passenger rail service. Even Cleveland and Cincinnati have sustained train stations, while Central Ohio has maintained only tracks, overpasses and the lonely whistles of passing freight.

Many across the country are turning to trains for budget travel to cities too close for flying, too far for driving. For example, a one-way ticket from Cleveland to Chicago costs around $45, and riders enjoy not having to deal with the hassles of the airport.

"The biggest difficulty for people today is the lack of a reference point," said Stu Nicholson, spokesman for the Ohio Rail Development Commission. "Next October will be 30 years - three generations who have never even seen passenger rail in Columbus."

Terms like the Ohio Hub and 3C rail - a proposed line to link Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland - have been tossed around for years, mostly as a pipe dream proffered by politicians and history buffs. But changing economic conditions, a governor and president-elect friendly to rail, and the most significant funding bill in Amtrak's history all mean the game is changing, Nicholson said.

Trains won't show tomorrow. But intercity rail in Columbus is closer than it has been since the National Limited left town nearly 30 years ago.