Eliminating short-distance airline flights between regional airports can significantly boost American efficiencies. Plus, airlines can obtain large savings by reducing landing fees, jet fuel consumption and airline service personnel. And this could be possible simply by connecting Amtrak and inter-urban passenger rail travel to many U.S. airports.

The first phase of the process involves airport rail links: a service providing passenger rail transport from an airport to a nearby city by mainline or commuter trains, rapid transit, people mover or light rail. Direct links operate straight to the airport terminal, while other rail link systems require an intermediate use of a people mover or shuttle bus.

For decades, airport rail links have been popular solutions in Europe and Japan. Only recently have these links been constructed in North America, Oceania and Asia.

Rider advantages include the obvious: faster travel times and easy interconnection with other public transport. Plus, authorities have benefitted from less highway and parking congestion, and less pollution, as well as new business opportunities. Additionally, this benefits airports by drawing in more passengers due to easier airport access.

While some exist, airport rail links are less common in North America. Cleveland’s Hopkins International Airport via Cleveland Rapid Transit was the first direct rail connection in the United States. And in the Midwest, St. Louis’ Lambert International Airport via the St. Louis MetroLink light rail system is one of the best.

Much more can be done to improve our transportation infrastructure.

It would be prudent to establish corridor pilot projects that reduce short-distance airline flights between regional airports, and develop new airport rail links to urban centers. An excellent place to start is in America's heartland with the corridor that follows along Interstate 70 from Pittsburgh to Kansas City and connects Pittsburgh, Columbus, Dayton, Indianapolis, St. Louis and Kansas City, with possible extensions to Cincinnati and Ft. Wayne. Currently, only St. Louis has an airport rail link.

The U.S. Railcar diesel multiple Unit (DMU) passenger train is certified to operate on all class one railroads. The DMU is an ideal unit that can provide economical service for airport rail links and for supplemental service on interfacing Amtrak routes, such as the Indianapolis-Chicago Hoosier State and the Cardinal, the St. Louis Texas Eagle, and the Kansas City Southwest Chief and Missouri River Runner.

Amtrak's Missouri River Runner, operating on Union Pacific trackage between St. Louis and Kansas City, could become part of the new passenger rail network.

To begin, these lean-budget transportation infrastructure steps need to be taken in 2013:  

  • First and most important, ‘fast track’ to completion plans for airport rail links in Indianapolis and Kansas City, including the purchase of light rail cars or DMU units, 
  • Give high priority to conduct airport rail link studies and action plans for Pittsburgh, Columbus, Dayton and Cincinnati,
  • For seamless travel, integrate Amtrak ticketing and baggage handling with the airlines and air/rail ticketing and service centers in union station/downtown Kansas City, St. Louis and Indianapolis,
  • Conduct a cost and implementation study to bring the freight rail lines up to passenger rail standards that run adjacent to Interstate 70 from Richmond, Indiana on the Ohio border to St. Louis.

With these steps underway, an initial pilot could involve establishing airport rail links to Indianapolis and Kansas City to connect with Amtrak’s Hoosier State, Cardinal, Texas Eagle, Southwest Chief and Missouri River Runner. And ultimately, to institute DMU passenger rail service between Richmond, Indiana and St. Louis, with continuing service to Kansas City on the Missouri River Runner using upgraded freight rail lines that run parallel to Interstate 70.

Here is one scenario of how the system could work. An airline passenger flying from the west coast would be ticketed to Indianapolis. However, he or she would actually deplane in St. Louis, take the MetroLink Red Line to St. Louis Union Station, transfer to a diesel multiple unit (DMU) interurban train, then proceed to Indianapolis Union Station to claim baggage before proceeding home on metro transit.

A second scenario may work like this: an Amtrak Cardinal passenger is ticketed with checked luggage to the west coast, de-trains in Indianapolis, takes the DMU interurban to St. Louis, and transfers to the MetroLink Red Line destined for the airport where he or she catches a plane to the west coast.

Each case simply involves one transportation ticket with baggage checked all the way through to the final destination.

United Airlines has led the industry in its agreement with Amtrak. According to their website, “United Airlines and Amtrak have teamed up to provide the ultimate experience in seamless travel and to offer you the opportunity to earn more award miles.” Interestingly, each of the cities on the overall I-70 corridor proposal is a United Airlines destination city.

History repeats itself. In the early 1900s, both Dayton and Indianapolis were twin hubs of an extensive interurban rail system that stretched from the east coast to the Rockies. This proposal re-creates history.

This article was slightly revised on February 5, 2013.

Thomas Norwalk
About The Author Thomas Norwalk
Thomas Norwalk, president of the Dayton, Ohio-based Miami Valley Marketing Group, is a long-time transportation advocate with expertise in rail transportation and urban economic development. His career has included positions at Ford Motor Company, piston ring manufacturer Perfect Circle Corporation, and B F Goodrich Tire Company.

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