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What to do with Union Terminal?

Have you ever been given a priceless family heirloom or antique that, despite its incredible beauty and functionality, never seems to really fit anywhere in your home? That seems to be the dilemma Cincinnati has faced with its magnificent Union Terminal complex over the years. Completed in 1933, Union Terminal was not only one of the finest examples of art deco architecture in the world, but it was also one of the best-planned transportation facilities of its age. A large concourse spanned the tracks at the rear of the building and provided stairs to each train platform. At the front, dedicated ramps for taxis, busses, and streetcars funneled passengers to their ultimate destinations in an efficient manner. The central hub of activity was the massive half-domed rotunda.


Photo: Jack Klumpe / The Cincinnati Post

Unfortunately, Union Terminal opened just as passenger rail in the US was beginning its long decline. Despite an upsurge in rail travel during the Second World War, the building soon found itself empty and obsolete. In 1974, the Southern Railway demolished the concourse to make room for an expanded yard for its freight operations. As if to add insult to injury, all but one of the concourse’s famous murals were relocated to the new airport across the river in Kentucky.

In 1990, Union Terminal re-opened as a home to the Cincinnati History Museum, the Museum of Natural History & Science, an Ominmax theater, and a children’s museum. The following year, Amtrak resurrected the building’s original function as a passenger rail station in a limited way, with its Cardinal train calling at the station three times a week in each direction.

Photo: Jack Klumpe / The Cincinnati Post

Photo: Jack Klumpe / The Cincinnati Post

Now, however, with attention focused on rebuilding the nation’s passenger rail infrastructure in the form of a Midwest Hub based in Chicago and the 3-C Corridor project in Ohio, some discussion has taken place around the virtual water cooler about where in Cincinnati the trains will stop.

The most likely candidate is arguably the Riverfront Transit Center downtown. Designed as a bus concourse and potential commuter rail hub, the unfinished Riverfront Transit Center has the advantage of being located directly within the downtown core — a boon for any passenger rail station. However, questions remain as to whether this facility has the capacity to serve as a hub for interstate train service.

Another possibility is the construction of an entirely new facility at the eastern edge of the downtown waterfront, near the existing Montgomery Inn boathouse. This, however, assumes trains will be arriving via the Oasis rail line that runs alongside the Ohio River east of downtown. Unlike the Riverfront Transit Center, though, this site is not located within convenient walking distance of the main business district, and the site likely lacks the required space for extensive passenger facilities or parking. Building a train station here would also give Cincinnati the dubious distinction of having built a third train station in the city while two perfectly good train stations sit idle a short distance away.

That brings us back to Union Terminal. Unfortunately, there would be a number of serious logistical issues involved with bringing frequent passenger rail service back to Union Terminal:

  1. The freight yard immediately to the west of the station — the location of the former concourse — would need to be closed and/ or relocated. This freight yard forms part of a very busy and congested freight hub in the Mill Creek Valley, and a new site would need to be found nearby with the proper track connections. While not an impossible task, this would require spending a large sum of money to acquire the necessary property and relocate the facility.
  2. The museums and Omnimax theater now occupy the bulk of the available space within Union Terminal, including the taxis, bus, and streetcar ramps. If Union Terminal were to be used for frequent passenger rail service again, there’s a strong possibility that the museums would also need to be relocated. Fortunately, the large surface parking lots currently located on either side of the approach drive to Union Terminal would be ideal sites for new, stand-alone museum buildings with below-grade parking.
  3. Location. Union Terminal has the misfortune of being located almost two miles from Fountain Square, the heart of downtown. The success of Union Terminal as a hub for high-speed passenger rail travel would be dependent upon the availability of fast, frequent, and convenient connecting transit to downtown, in the form of streetcar, light rail, and/or subway. Ideally, Union Terminal would also have some form of fast, frequent connecting service to the airport so that regional high-speed trains can effectively serve as feeders for long-distance air travel.


In the short term, I feel that the Riverfront Transit Center is the logical terminus for passenger rail service to Cincinnati. It has the advantage of being conveniently located, and the required capital to make needed improvements would likely be less than required to build a new station at the boathouse, and certainly far less than required to make the needed improvements at Union Terminal.

In the long term, however, as the high-speed rail network continues to expand and become increasingly seen as a “normal” part of interstate travel, Cincinnati would do well to consider restoring Union Terminal’s rightful place as a magnificent gateway to the city. This would include relocating the freight yard, creating new homes for the museums nearby, and providing necessary transit connections to downtown and the airport. As icing on the cake, the surviving murals should be brought back from the airport and reinstalled in the new concourse.

Such a massive project is far beyond the scope of my transit master plan for Greater Cincinnati, but it’s something I’ve been putting a lot of thought into lately. Maybe I’ll save that idea for my M.Arch. thesis.