FRANKFORT — Ralph Tharp preaches the gospel of regional commuter trains to those who will listen.
Over the past few months, Tharp has told elected officials, college students and even model-train enthusiasts about his vision for a passenger rail line that would run between Winchester and Louisville, with stops at Lexington, Midway, Frankfort and Shelbyville.
Some people embrace Tharp's message; others are skeptical. That doesn't bother him.
"There's always skepticism about something new," Tharp said. "People say, 'No one is going to ride this.' Well, that's probably not true."
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Tharp is executive director of the Kentucky Capital Development Corp., the organization in Frankfort that seeks to bring jobs to that community. As gas prices climb to nearly $4 a gallon, Tharp said it's time to explore the feasibility of bringing back passenger rail to shuttle commuters between cities along the 101-mile corridor.
For ticket prices of perhaps $5 to $6 a person, they would carry passengers to stops along the line.
As Tharp envisions it, the Thoroughbred Rail Link would have two sets of trains: one starting from Louisville and heading east, the other starting west from Winchester. The trains would travel existing tracks owned by CSX Corp., the nation's third-largest freight railroad by revenue. A large portion of the rail is leased to R.J. Corman Railroad Group of Nicholasville for movement of freight.
Unlike commuters traveling alone in their cars, train passengers could read the paper, do work on their laptops and chat with fellow riders. Tharp said a private vendor could sell "coffee in the morning, bourbon in the evening."
Each locomotive could run on liquid natural gas, and each would pull four bi-level cars, each holding 150 passengers, for a total capacity of 600. Tharp thinks some passengers might want to take bicycles along so they could reach their final destination.
These would not be high-speed bullet trains streaking across the Bluegrass. But with improvements to the existing track, the speed might approach 69 mph, significantly faster than the 10 to 40 mph that freight trains travel.
Skeptics say passenger rail is an appealing concept, but it's expensive and fraught with funding problems.
"The key is finding funding to implement it," said John Carr, a former deputy state highway engineer who is now vice president of Wilbur Smith Associates, a transportation consulting firm in Lexington.
Tharp estimates — emphasis on "estimates" — that the locomotives, passenger cars and improvements to existing track and signals could total $120 million or less. Funding for that could come from a federal program called Small Starts, which pays for improvements costing less than $250 million to existing rail lines.
The annual operation and maintenance budget of the Thoroughbred Rail Link would be roughly $7 million to $9 million, Tharp said. Revenues would come from ticket sales, concession contracts and display advertising on the passenger car exteriors, he said.
The first step to make the commuter line a reality would be to obtain about $300,000 to pay for a feasibility study that would explore whether the rail link is a pipe dream or a workable idea. Tharp is vague about where that money could be found.
"We're looking for available funds that we can use," Tharp said. "That's about as far as I can go."
Tharp said the reaction from elected officials along the proposed route has been "very supportive."
Shelby County Judge-Executive Rob Rothenburger said he "would support the concept of doing a study, especially right now, with gasoline at $4 a gallon.
"A lot of our residents go to UK ball games or U of L ball games. We get a lot of people who go to Lexington or Louisville to do shopping in larger malls that are out there," he said.
Shelbyville civil engineer Charles Schimpeler, who has had extensive experience with railroads, said passenger rails save commuters gas and can save the state the cost of adding new lanes to Interstate 64.
Schimpeler said the upgrade of a freeway mile costs about $10 million, while the upgrade of a track mile costs $1 million. And a freeway lane will carry 2,000 people per hour, but a railway mile can carry 10 times that, he said.
Winchester Mayor Ed Burtner is intrigued by Tharp's idea and said it might dovetail nicely with a project there.
The site of an old L&N Railroad depot, torn down in 1981, could be the eastern terminus for the Thoroughbred Rail Link. The city has a $900,000 grant to rebuild the cobblestone street and other public facilities in the Depot Street area, Burtner said.
"We would hope that if this project ever comes about, that that would be the termination point for this particular service," Burtner said. "I think it's something worth exploring."
Skeptics aren't opposed to looking into the feasibility of a regional commuter line. But they say there are a lot of obstacles.
"If it was a good business decision, CSX and R.J. Corman would already be doing it," said Carr, the Wilbur Smith Associates engineer.
When he was a deputy state highway engineer for intermodal planning, Carr asked for a study in the late 1990s that looked at the feasibility of high-speed rail linking the Lexington, Louisville and Cincinnati airports. This would have been a very different proposal than what Tharp envisions. For one thing, it would have meant building new track; Tharp wants to use existing track.
"What we found was you could only recover about 20 percent of the operating cost," Carr said. "That didn't include the capital cost for the track and the purchase of the equipment to run it."
From what he has heard and seen of Tharp's idea, Carr said, "I think the concept is admirable, but I just don't think it will be feasible."
Carr said he doesn't think R.J. Corman will "sidetrack their freight in order to give preference to passenger rail. And in order for passenger rail to be effective, its times have got to be consistent. It's got to leave on time and arrive on time; otherwise people aren't going to want to use it."
Noel Rush, vice president of strategic planning and development for R.J. Corman Railroad Group, said "funding is problematic" for passenger rail. Rush also said that the Nicholasville company remains optimistic about someday operating an excursion train between Lexington and Frankfort, as Fred Mudge, chairman of the board for Corman, announced in June 2009. The company operates My Old Kentucky Dinner Train out of Bardstown.
But Rush said, "We have no formal plan to operate a passenger train."
CSX spokesman Bob Sullivan said the Jacksonville, Fla.-based company had not been approached about Thoroughbred Rail Link.
Tharp said he has not approached CSX or R.J. Corman Railroad Group about sharing freight tracks with passenger trains, and he wouldn't, "unless we know that everyone is behind this." (At the time of the interview, he had not yet discussed the idea with Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer.)
"Why would we even approach them when we don't have a program?" Tharp said. "First, we've got to get the program. If the cities said, 'No, we're not going to do this,' then we couldn't get any funding."
Still, this regional discussion doesn't even approach the bitter debate in Washington over passenger rail. This month's hard-fought budget resolution cut money from existing programs, including the broader program that contains Small Starts. The debate is likely to intensify as Congress turns its attention to the next budget.
And earlier this month, CSX chief executive Officer Michael Ward told Bloomberg News that he "can't be part of" President Barack Obama's vision of building a national high-speed passenger rail network because passenger trains don't make money.
"I'm a corporation. I exist to make money, OK?" Ward told Bloomberg News. "You can't make money hauling passengers, so why would I do that? That wouldn't be fair to my shareholders."
For his part, Jerry Rose, a civil engineering professor at the University of Kentucky, finds Tharp's proposal intriguing. But he thinks Tharp's timetable of having the commuter rail ready to roll by the end of 2012 is too optimistic.
"It's going to take one of the fastest-track scheduling scenarios that's ever been achieved to get it done by the end of 2012," Rose said. "I don't think it's very realistic, based on past historical examples of other cities that have put this sort of thing in. ... He (Tharp) really doesn't go into a lot of the details" on how it would get done.
Tharp acknowledged that without a feasibility study in hand, "I can't give you all the answers. The most accurate thing to say is we feel a commuter rail will benefit all of us. But until we get a feasibility study ... we don't have the answers yet."
He later said: "If we felt we wouldn't be successful, we wouldn't have started this."