Great Lakes Journal: $500 million worth of rail fever

Less than a hundred years ago, Ohio was crisscrossed with passenger-rail lines and thousands of miles of electric interurbans, shuttling its residents between the countryside and big cities. The introduction of the auto made those obsolete. Now the state is in frenzied pursuit of federal stimulus money to return rail service to the state.

The question is, will we use it? Ohio hired Amtrak to study the feasibility of its Quick Start plan, an eight-train-a-day passenger service connecting Cincinnati, Dayton, Columbus, and Cleveland and using existing rails at modest speeds. Last week, Amtrak unveiled its findings, including an estimate that 478,000 riders a year would use the service, spending $12 million for the privilege. The full 225-mile route, from the Ohio River to Lake Erie, is projected to take around six hours, versus a drive time of four hours and 50 minutes on Greyhound. Ticket price estimates, based on those of the Chicago-St. Louis train, range from $23 to $60.
The study blew the state's estimate of start-up costs off the rail. $518 million will be needed to upgrade the route, buy new rolling stocks, and build stations and ramps. Once in service, passenger revenue will still fall $17 million short each year, a gap the Ohio Rail Commission projects to fill with ad sales and fees collected from businesses along the route that benefit from the new traffic.

The line fits into a much larger vision, the Ohio Hub, 1,244 miles of interstate rail that would connect to even further flung networks such as the New York Empire Corridor and VIA Rail Canada.

Like many travelers, I fell in love with the convenience of rail travel in Europe. However, I find myself agreeing with many Ohio Republicans who hold strong reservations about the amount of money being dumped into the state's plan. Here are some:

1. Why would anyone ride the rail?Greyhound runs six buses daily from Cincinnati to Columbus, and seven from Columbus to Cleveland. At 49 passengers per bus (when full), no more than 294 people could be making the cross-state trek every day. The price, $43, is less than what's estimated for the train, and the travel time is more than an hour shorter. Drive time in a passenger car is even quicker, and our freeway congestion is inconsequential in comparison to that on either coast.

2. Does it make economic sense? Yes, the start-up money will probably come from the federal pie -- but that pie was baked with money from our wallets. When even those who will benefit from the train system project an ongoing operating deficit, why should we dump more than half a billion dollars to get it started?

3. Will the trains run on time? Amtrak is notorious for running hours, even days, behind schedule, partly due to conflicts in access to commercial rail tracks. Reading the Ohio study, I note that there are many chokepoints identified along the route, using rails owned by several train companies that make their nut hauling commercial traffic. In some stretches, a single set of tracks will be shared by all traffic. The companies who own those rails (Norfolk Southern, CSX, and IROY), while involved in the process, have not yet agreed to their use, nor have plans on how to share the use in a way that keeps the trains on time been worked out.

4. Can it withstand political pressure? The planning documents for this program have a built-in conflict; the train is expected to serve primarily commuters, yet if enough stops are included to make commuting appealing, the speed of the train would be considerably reduced. Yet the Amtrak study projects a cross-state speed limited primarily by infrastructure problems. Given the nature of state government, I expect that the representatives of every district that the train passes through will lobby for a stop, and those with enough influence will be hard to deny. And if we blithely ignore the need to cover expenses in operating this train, look for every other town of any size to demand linking services regardless of costs.

5. Do we have enough integration of services? Taking a train to Cleveland isn't appealing if, once there, you don't have a way to get from the station to your destination. It would be easy to spend as much on a taxi from the Columbus station to a north side location as it cost to travel to Columbus by train, and our bus service is limited. The beauty of European train travel is how well it is integrated.

6. Will it really serve to bring economic development? Proponents point to the Downeasterner rail line from Portland, Maine, to Boston as an example of the development that a rail line can inspire. However, if the Ohio line is only going to serve 1,300 people a day, I don't see that as a book of business that will drive development.

There are other reasons to look to train travel, including reduced congestion on the highways and reduction in pollution. However, is our money best spent taking a step back to the 1930s, to the era of train traffic -- an era we abandoned as soon as we could afford our own car? We gleefully chose the convenience, freedom of choice and greater comfort of the automobile as soon as we could.

The concept seems like the kind of gamble that we would only take with public money. Personally, I favor spending my tax dollars on sure things.
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