A dinner train with boarding at Lexington Center and an excursion train between Lexington and beyond Frankfort could be in operation as early as next year, with the potential for passenger service between the two cities later.
The announcement was made Thursday at the Lexington Center board meeting by Fred Mudge, chairman of the board of R.J. Corman Railroad Group, based in Nicholasville.
The railroad came seeking permission to negotiate a long-term lease with Lexington Center to extend its tracks under a new bridge that will be built over Cox Street and Town Branch and 700 feet onto Lexington Center's Cox Street parking lot.
Corman needs the additional space for turning trains around because a portion of its rail yard — on the west side of Cox Street — will be taken by Phase 4 of the Newtown Pike extension.
Extending the track makes it possible for a passenger train to get closer to downtown, the convention center, hotels and existing parking.
And that opens the opportunity for Corman to run a dinner train and an excursion train. The railroad currently operates My Old Kentucky Dinner Train out of Bardstown.
A dinner train from Lexington would most likely go to Frankfort, turn around and come back, Mudge said. An excursion trip might extend to Bagdad, a small community west of Frankfort, then return to Lexington.
"Taking the track onto Lexington Center property would not prevent us from using the Cox Street lot for parking," said Bill Owen, president and chief executive officer of Lexington Center.
Neither would it diminish other uses for the lot, such as the July 4 Red White & Boom concert. In recent years, an amphitheater, IMAX screen and a farmers market have been talked about for the Cox Street site.
And it creates possibilities for marketing train excursions to convention attendees.
"I don't think this precludes anything the Lexington Center wants to do there," said Mike W. Hancock, state highway engineer with the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet.
Owen said that he "enthusiastically" supported the railroad's request.
A dinner train could be the first step toward establishing passenger service between Lexington and Louisville. "Corman has conveyed to us their desire to start construction right away and create the opportunity for passenger train service as soon as possible," Owen said.
An excursion train could travel the existing freight track between Winchester and Louisville. For higher-speed passenger service, the line would have to be upgraded extensively, an expensive proposition, Mudge said.
The Corman Group operates six small, private railroad lines in Kentucky.
A contract for work on Newtown Pike, including the Cox Street bridge, will be awarded in July. Construction is expected to begin shortly after that, said James E. Ballinger, chief district engineer for the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet.
The new bridge will extend from near the Salvation Army property on West Main Street, over Town Branch, to Manchester Street, paralleling the Jefferson Street viaduct.
"It became apparent if we provided clearance under the (Cox Street) bridge for train cars, there could be benefits to the city," Hancock said.
What opportunities might open up for regular passenger service between Lexington and other cities "we don't even know" at this time, Hancock said. But if gas prices continue to climb and there is a limit to the number of cars on highways, there will be a future for rail traffic, he said.
High-speed rail plans in the Midwest and California appear to be frontrunners for getting $8 billion in stimulus money, according to federal criteria released on Wednesday.
Eight Midwest states have cooperated to promote a network of rail lines, with Chicago as the hub, that would join 12 metropolitan areas within 400 miles. Louisville and Cincinnati would be part of that network.
Passenger service is not part of the Lexington plans, Owen said, but the city should position itself to take advantage if an opportunity comes along.
Extending the tracks creates "some sizzle for the present, a lot of potential for the future," Owen said.
Vice Mayor Jim Gray, a Lexington Center board member, said it was important to address "current and future opportunities of integrating the railway with the downtown, the civic center, the Manchester Street Distillery District and the Town Branch Trail."
The Lexington Center board voted to include a request for a consultant to do a small area plan for the Cox Street area; at the same time, it backed the idea of negotiating a long-term lease with R.J. Corman.