Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Wasson Way

- The abandoned tracks of the "Wasson Way" rail line, a potential thoroughfare for recreation or light rail. Photograph by Cameron Knight.

If you drive into Cincinnati from the west side and look out over the sprawling network of railroad tracks, industrial cargo and airport-like control tower that watches over the massive rail yard, it's hard to imagine that any railroad in the city would go unused. Yet, there's quite a few hidden amongst the brush. The question is, what do you do with them? For the Wasson Way, there's two concepts that conflict or can coexist depending on who you talk to, but does it all hinge on political controversy in order to rise from a hidden, historical obscurity?

- The Wasson Way. Photograph by Ronny Salerno.

It's a gray and cold Friday afternoon, but the rain's holding off. We parked the car on a side street not too far from where we saw the abandoned tracks. Cutting across a condominium parking lot, I watch Cam go first down the embankment. He makes it down with ease, but I'm not so lucky as my ass slides through the dirt and mud towards the unused railroad. In both directions the tracks go on as far as you can see, but immediately next to us is a roadway overpass, the underside of which has become an urban art gallery - a canvas for graffiti. Clear of hobos, we take a look around.

- Photograph by Ronny Salerno

These tracks haven't seen a train since 2009, when Norfolk-Southern cut off service. Since then, the industrial corridor has been sitting quietly, slowly being reclaimed by the nature that buffers it from the backyards and businesses along its path.

- Beneath the overpass. Photograph by Cameron Knight.

Known as the "Wasson Way," the rail line spans nearly 7 miles. It links the east side neighborhoods of Hyde Park, Oaklway, Fairfax, Mariemont, Mt. Lookout and the city of Norwood. If you didn't know any better, you might assume its part of a subway line, although the stations and trains are clearly absent  (something the Queen City is all too familiar with).

- Photograph by Ronny Salerno.

The right-of-way holds great potential to one day be used for light rail though. It connects some of the city's most dense neighborhoods, schools, attractions, shopping, businesses and one of the major universities in town (Xavier).

- Photograph by Cameron Knight.

Currently, a non-profit group is advocating for a "rails to trails" conversion. I.E. transforming the right-of-way into a bike/walking path. A repurposed "Wasson Way" recreation trail would eventually link up with the renown Little Miami Bike Trail.

- Photograph by Ronny Salerno.

But what about the potential for rail transportation? The line is almost too perfect for it. And for a city to build a passenger rail line, acquiring right-of-way can be one of the most tedious and expensive tasks. Yet, here's a perfect opportunity. Randy Simes of Urban Cincy made that case not too long ago when he proposed that the Wasson Way be preserved for light rail, while the continuously Hamilton County pushed riverfront Oasis Line be the recreation trail.

- Discarded spray paint can lids. Photograph by Ronny Salerno.

Proponents of the bike trail state that they support using the way for both light rail and recreation in the future, allowing the two to coexist together. Could it happen though? Is there enough room for light rail and a bike bath? Is there even enough room for dual tracks allowing rail transit in both directions? And if the bike path is built first, can you imagine the complaints that will fall in from those living in a city that has never had modern rail transportation when the powers that be want to run trains by their quiet, peaceful bike path?

- Beneath the overpass. Photograph by Ronny Salerno.

Nevertheless, can the bike trail even happen? Currently, Norfolk-Southern still owns the land and according to a 2011 article they think it can still be used for light rail and wanted to see more firm financial backing before they consider selling to the bike trail advocates. Those advocates might have their financial backing from the city, if the currently debated parking privatization contract goes through. If not, they plan to keep pursuing other funding options.

- Wasson Way graffiti. Photograph by Ronny Salerno.

There's a lot of what-ifs, no set plan and many things yet to be determined, but both ideas are noble goals. Personally, I think a light rail plan makes more sense and is more important to the long term growth of this city and the surrounding area, but I don't hate bike paths.

In the meantime, the tracks remain quiet and the gritty ovepasses exist as a hidden, urban art gallery.

- Photograph by Cameron Knight.

Updates | Oct. 22, 2017:
  • The graffiti covered bridge seen here was demolished in late 2016 and replaced with a new one in mid 2017.
  • In September 2017, I explored another section of the proposed Wasson Way, the abandoned railroad bridges. That story and an update on the bike trail is here.


  1. These are the kind of posts I love. More like this!

  2. I love this post, too!! Great story, good questions, great photography.

  3. Ronny! Love it. My senior design capstone was literally working on this exact project. Rails to trails I think makes more sense. After having done some extensive research on the subject (I guess that's what happens when you have to pass your senior design class to graduate!), I think it's reasonable to see the funding come through for the rail. All your what-ifs are legitimate, but at least from an engineering perspective, my group solved the ROW issues you brought up about trail and rail.

    It definitely wouldn't be incredibly easy to do, but it's definitely possible. The biggest problems are the train bridges (over 71, Red Bank, and through Ault Park) since those are only one rail wide. Essentially, if the track were to be used for passenger rail, they'd have to build a new bridge for a two way light rail, leaving the current bridges for the bike path. The other pinch points would need a bit of engineering to make them work, but the tightest points could be address by having a one rail wide area where necessary and just having the rail timing worked out.

    I agree, the Oasis project is silly and not as useful, but most of the people in charge see it is a low hanging fruit that can taken care of now. It's a cheaper project (if I remember correctly) and the neighborhoods it connects have a bit more influence and cash in their pockets - if I might quote the Wu-Tang Clan, cash rules everything around me.

    Thanks for the fantastic pictures though - I wish we could have borrowed these for our presentations!

    1. Is your capstone online? I'd love to check it out.

  4. This is a great location for light rail, and the best case would be to have light rail along with bike trail, if possible. I just hope something happens.

    Also, the FAQ on the Wasson Way website does state they want light rail:

    "Good for light rail:
    Federal Regulations established Rails-To-Trails to preserve right-or-way for future transportation. We support light rail! The Wasson Way will be built next to the existing rails. When light rail is developed we will work with City planners to have a bike trail built next to an operating light rail system. If there is inadequate right-of-way we will either relocate or remove the Wasson Way and give the right-of-way to light rail." -

  5. I emailed you a while back about a railroad overpass that passes over red bank rd. This is the same track! Very curious to know what becomes of it, but I hope they do something instead of letting it go to waste.

    - BTK

  6. Rails-to-Trails is the first thing I thought of when I started reading this post. I support them and more connected bike paths in the area. But if the sentiment grows for light rail sure, do that. Or both. I just prefer the simplicity and independence of a bike. I'm fairly sure rails-to-trails doesn't own anything, they just convert unused rails into local bike paths, all non-profit.

  7. What street/road passes over it to necessitate the overpass?

  8. ^ Based on the construction type it looks like Marburg. Erie also has an overpass but it's newer and I think is more like a box culvert.

    I think it would be great to have both light rail and a bike path, but considering how narrow the right-of-way is, I just don't see how that's possible. Maybe there's a way to get around it, but I don't know. At the very least, both sides of the argument need to come together to make sure the right-of-way is not sold off and built on.

  9. Great post, loved reading it and the photos are fantastic. It will be interesting to see where this project goes. Either choice is better than letting is just sit.

  10. As you point out in your post we are making plans to have both a bike and light-rail system in the future. Several important points to consider...1)until there is a light-rail line built from downtown to the Xavier Campus and beyond it makes no sense to build light-rail along the Wasson right-of-way 2)under the 2002 comprehensive light-rail proposal (MetroMoves) the Wasson Line would not be built for at least 25 years 3)there have been three very serious attempts to lease and cut up the right-of-way...all of them defeated by our efforts 4)the efforts of the non-profit, all volunteer bike trail group will preserve this right-of-way and is the best hope for a future light-rail system 5)Many rail right-of-ways have disappeared in Cincinnati without anyone stepping forward to preserve them.
    Thanks for the post and your interest. Contact

  11. How many of you "supporters" actually LIVE on Wasson Rd directly across from the tracks??? Easy for you to decide about something that is nowhere near your own home.