Thursday, April 22, 2010

This Week in Amtrak

Amtrak Train #49, the Lake Shore Limited, pull...Image via Wikipedia

Volume 7, Number 13
April 22nd, 2010

A weekly digest of events, opinions, and forecasts from

United Rail Passenger Alliance, Inc.

America’s foremost passenger rail policy institute

1526 University Boulevard, West, PMB 203 • Jacksonville, Florida 32217-2006 USA

Telephone 904-636-7739, Electronic Mail •


Our desks being at last clear of the beloved IRS instruction booklets, and with last year’s tax forms safely snuggled in their bankers’ boxes, we turn now to how a few of our hard-earned dollars are — refreshingly — wisely to be spent in Ohio.

We hear this week from our Bruce Richardson who wrote the following just before (according to the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette), “Democrats on the state Controlling Board voted 4-3 along party lines to approve spending $25 million in federal stimulus money to complete final engineering and design work on” Ohio’s Three Cs corridor this Monday. This is a wise investment, giving planners the opportunity to prove the plan’s worthiness: “Future support from GOP lawmakers on the panel will be crucial. State law requires a supermajority vote for capital improvements on passenger rail development…” reports the Journal Gazette, so lawmakers will have the opportunity to weigh the merits of the complete design before committing to construction.

This is a welcome development; Mr. Richardson explains why:

Oh, Ohio.
By Bruce Richardson
It’s a mad, mad, mad world in Ohio right now for rail fans, who for decades have been agitating for the creation of the Three Cs corridor. The rail fans are “this close” to having the Three Cs corridor recreated, tying Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati together in one passenger train run after the feds opened the treasury and doled out $400 million in free federal stimulus monies to create the route.

Currently, Cleveland has dreary nocturnal service in each direction courtesy of the Lake Shore Limited and the Capitol Limited. Cleveland has a metropolitan area population of 2.25 million, yet Amtrak passengers entraining and detraining only total 39,371 for fiscal year 2009. Cincinnati fares even worse, with only three days a week nocturnal service provided by the Cardinal. Cincinnati’s metropolitan area is almost as large as Cleveland, with an area population of 2.15 million souls. Hardly anybody notices the Cardinal in Cincinnati, with only 14,777 FY 2009 passengers entraining and detraining.

Columbus isn’t even on Amtrak’s map. The metropolitan area population is 1.77 million, not a small city.

The plan is to right this wrong by creating a four round-trips day train between the three cities and Dayton, with some extra stops along the way. Here’s the problem: Ohio’s governor wants to do this, Ohio’s Department of Transportation wants to do this, and the feds want to do this. But, the majority party in the Ohio state senate doesn’t want to do this, and some members of a state commission which ultimately have to sign off on this don’t want to do it, either.

The naysayers say thanks very much for the $400 million, but what about the small state matching money and funds for operating the trains? They are afraid Ohio will be in the same position as charity recipients are on that silly ABC Television reality show, Extreme Makeover Home Edition: Some goofy looking guy with bad hair who for whatever reason nobody can figure out has become a celebrity hands you a nice gift, but you can’t afford to keep it up or pay the taxes on it year after year. So, rail fans in Ohio are gritting their teeth, and can taste the new Three Cs corridor it’s so close. All of this comes down to convincing just less than a handful of people of the wonders of intrastate passenger train travel, and the Three Cs will be a reality.

The question must be asked: Has anyone educated these recalcitrant public servants about other state success stories? Have they quizzed their next door neighbors in Illinois about how successful those state trains are? Did they take a look at the country’s most important state, Virginia, and see how in just the first quarter of operations of the new Lynchburg train, the state paid no operating subsidy in the second month to Amtrak because ridership and revenue passenger miles were so successful? Did anyone consult with North Carolina, home to the country’s most enlightened state department of transportation on rail matters about how to run state-subsidized passenger trains successfully so the subsidies remain low or nonexistent? What about California, and its giant, successful state rail program?

All of this boils down to education and the proper presentation of facts. Most likely, Ohio politicians are relying on past Amtrak studies, such as last year’s Three Cs report, which predicted low ridership and high expenses, as Amtrak always does to prevent later finger pointing claiming the company was too optimistic. Instead of doing their own homework, they incorrectly relied on the work of someone else. Had they done their own homework they probably would have come up with a completely different set of numbers and been able to make far different decisions.

Another point of contention is the alleged speed of the proposed trains. The alleged forces of evil claim the overall speed is too slow for the money being spent. visions of high speed trains dance in their heads. Nobody told these folks about incrementalism, using relatively inexpensive conventional rail such as found in the Three Cs proposal as a building block and later feeder system for high speed rail.

The war in Ohio will continue until someone figures out a way to educate these politicians about the realities of passenger rail and the promise passenger rail holds for a balanced transportation system in the future. Until that day comes, Ohio will be a state of highways, not a state of transportation choices.

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