Sunday, April 25, 2010

Commuter rail in Ohio

It was actually tough for me to decide what to blog about. I have a lot of things on my mind that I'd like to sort out (blogging and writing in general is really good for that!), so I figured I better get the first one out before it gets any worse, i.e. I find more things to blog about! :)

One thing I've been wanting to blog about for some time is the concept of commuter rail here in Ohio. The state was successful in obtaining a grant a few months ago to develop what is known as the "3-C Corridor", basically a rail line connecting Ohio's largest cities: Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Columbus. Dayton would also be included in this rail line and it's part of a larger "Ohio Hub" project for the entire state. It's not that there are a shortage of railroads in Ohio, but in terms of passenger service, northeast Ohio is currently served by just 2 Amtrak lines: the Lakeshore Limited between Boston and Chicago via Cleveland and Elyria and the Capitol Limited between Washington, DC and Chicago via stations in Alliance, Cleveland, and Elyria. Southern Ohio is served basically by one Amtrak line, the Cardinal/Hoosier State line between Chicago and New York via Cincinnati. The problem with being in the middle of a line like that is trains arrive at inconvenient hours, like 2 AM. Hardly the best times to entice travelers to use the service. Even looking at the Amtrak website, the fares are less than air travel, but not as significantly less as I thought and it takes a lot longer than even driving.

Now, I'm not opposed to rail service or additional forms of public transportation; that's not the issue. My problem is spending money on something that will end up needing heavily subsidized to keep afloat because not enough people are riding it. I'd love to see a convenient train lines between Ohio's main cities. But in looking at the initial plans for 3-C, I'm having a hard time seeing how enough people are going to use it to keep it worthwhile. First is the speed. The trains are touted as reaching a top speed of 79 mph. Unfortunately, 79 is the top speed, not the average speed. Add in all the stops in between Cleveland and Columbus and suddenly the average speed drops to about 34 mph making the trip closer to between 3 and 4 hours. The speed limit on I-71 between Cleveland and Columbus is 65 mph for most of it, but for those of us who have driven on 71 or any Interstate highway, we know most people go above 65. By driving it takes about 2 to 2 and a half hours to get from Cleveland to Columbus depending on where in Cleveland and Columbus. From here in Kent it is about the same. If I were to take this train to Columbus from Kent, I'd have to drive the 45 minutes or more to the Cleveland station, park there (or get dropped off), go through security, then have a 3-4 hour trip to Columbus. Then once I get to Columbus, I have to wait for either a friend or rely on the city's public transit system. And ticket cost for the train hasn't even been factored in because I haven't seen any details on how much it will cost. Even with gas inching up again, it's hardly THAT expensive to drive to Columbus as it barely takes half a tank. A full tank of gas is around $40-$45 at the moment, I get to choose when I leave, when I stop, and when I come back, and it still takes significantly less time. Why would I want to take the train? Even to Cincinnati it wouldn't make sense in terms of time or cost. On top of this, in order for the larger Ohio Hub to be successful, the 3-C has to be successful in ridership. See a problem?

Now I can see people using this service, particularly people who don't have a car of their own (like college students) or people just looking to take a day trip who don't want to worry about finding parking (like to a big event such a baseball game or football game). And there will be people who take it because they want to or don't mind the extra time. Not everyone likes to drive! But will those be enough to keep an entire rail network going? I have a hard time believing they would.

While I was in Utah I had the chance to see and learn a little bit about Utah's newest transportation option, a commuter rail system known as FrontRunner. It currently stretches from Salt Lake City in the south to Ogden in the north and soon will be extended south to Provo. It's obviously on a much smaller scale than the 3-C Corridor would be as FrontRunner covers the Wasatch Front (Utah's major metro area) and 3-C would connect 4 major metro areas. Further, another difference is that FrontRunner was designed to help relieve traffic on I-15. Traffic in the Wasatch Front is very much north-south oriented (nature of mountains and valleys) and I-15 is the only major north-south highway, so it has to handle a lot of traffic. I-71 could be considered similar as the only major highway connecting the "3-C's", but 71 is 3 lanes almost the entire distance between Cleveland and Columbus and passes through large stretches of rural area; it is hardly congested the rate that I-15 is as 15 along the Wasatch Front passes through all urban or suburban areas. Even with the obvious differences in size of the systems and layout of surrounding infrastructure, there are still similarities that as Ohioans we should be aware of and learn from. First, ridership is nowhere near what the Utah Transit Authority (UTA) had hoped or promoted when lobbying for construction of FrontRunner. The biggest complaint I heard from my friends and family in Utah was the cost of tickets being too high. Put that together with the time (other complaint: no faster than taking the UTA buses and certainly slower than driving, even in rush hour) and it doesn't leave much enticement. Without a certain number of riders, the service ends up being a black hole of money. The goal should be a self-sustaining system or as close to one as possible.

The lesson is that transportation options need to offer something that is an advantage over other options available. Flying, for instance, offers major savings in time. Driving offers more individual choices and preferences in terms of where to go and when. Unless rail can be faster than driving but cheaper than air, there will be little reason for most people to use it. People use subway and bus systems in large cities because it is cheaper and faster than trying to drive on congested roads and paying for parking. Blame it on the car companies all you want, but most Americans value being able to go where they want when they want and not worrying about set schedules. That's why we own cars and commute to work or school. True, we do conform to schedules when we travel by air, but again, the convenience of saving several hours of travel time versus going by car or rail is the incentive to give up that personal freedom. Even then, many still choose to drive long distances. Here in Ohio, I'd be much more excited if actual high-speed rail were being developed right away between the major cities, even more so if it had an option of taking your car with you and had plans for more tie-ins with those cities not along the main route. Supporters claim high speed is where 3-C is headed, but if it isn't successful initially, the plan really is nothing but an empty hope and another waste of money. This letter to the editor in the Akron Beacon Journal was something I found looking for more information and it pretty much sums up how I feel and a lot of the points I made here!


Anonymous said...

Are you sure that this train would make stops? It would make little sense for them to add in stops between Cleveland and Columbus.

Jon said...

Yes, there will be stops; maps have at least 2 in between Cleveland and Columbus; one near Mansfield and one in Delaware County. It's not a Cleveland-Columbus Express route by any means. 3-C can only even hope to be successful if it can attract riders from whole regions, not just Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, or Cincinnati. Ohio has a very spread out population in both rural and suburban areas; it's not at all concentrated just in the major cities.