Columbus, Ohio, Wants In on the Midwest Rail Renaissance

Columbus, Ohio, population 800,000, is among the biggest U.S. cities without passenger rail. But its time may have finally come.

A new plan for passenger rail would link Columbus to Chicago. Image: ##http://allaboardohio.org/2013/06/28/columbus-lima-ft-wayne-chicago-passenger-rail-study-released/## All Aboard Ohio##

A college town and state capital, Columbus has bucked the trend of urban decline in Ohio and built a strong economy on insurance and retail. The culture here has been famously resistant to rail plans, but it’s a young city that’s becoming more and more progressive. Columbus has seen major growth in its core urban neighborhoods in recent years.

Now city leaders are throwing their support behind a new plan to create a rail link from Columbus to Chicago via Fort Wayne, Indiana. A study by the Northeast Indiana Passenger Rail Association [PDF] makes it seem like a pretty sweet deal. The group estimates that the cost of linking the three cities on existing freight rail lines would be about $1.3 billion — about one-tenth the price of connecting the two cities by highway. The group estimates the trains could travel between 110 and 130 miles per hour, completing the 355 mile trip in under four hours, making it competitive with flying and driving. The project, they estimate, would generate $1.70 for every $1 invested and would create up to 26,800 permanent jobs.

As for where the money would come from, that’s an open question. But some rail advocates are optimistic that the proposal has strong enough market potential that at least part of it could be privately funded. NIPRA estimates the system could draw $116 million in fares in the year 2020. And if population growth continues as projected, annual fare revenue could rise to $190 million by 2040.

Vince Papsidero, Columbus’s planning administrator, told the Columbus Dispatch: “This actually could be profitable.”

That said, this is still a far-away dream. The city of Columbus backed the initial study with $20,000. Proponents are trying to raise $2 million for an engineering study. After that, they’d need $10 million from the feds for an environmental impact study.

Plus, the state of Ohio is broke, and the governor hates trains.

Ken Prendergast at All Aboard Ohio points out that other states that rejected federal rail money — Florida and Wisconsin — are now pursuing expansion of their systems. Will Columbus’s interest in passenger rail be enough to bring new rail service to Ohio too?

  • Alon Levy

    The speed proposed is ambitious, and may well require new track. It’s 304 miles (not 355) in 3:45 for express trains, which is 81 mph, or 130 km/h average. This is the same as the average speed of the Acela between New York and Washington, and exists on just a handful of express diesel corridors with the target top speed, all of which run on passenger-primary track. Israel’s Tel Aviv-Haifa express trains average 120 km/h with a top speed of 140 km/h, but the rolling stock used is of higher quality than what’s legal on American mainline track, the route is fully double-tracked, there is no bottleneck like the one in Chicago, and passenger trains have priority over freight trains. Britain’s Great Western Main Line also averages 120 km/h, with a top speed of 160, but again all the factors that are present in Israel that are absent in the US are present there.

    It’s technically possible, but I doubt CSX will agree to the reliability standards required to maintain such a schedule. In New York it demanded that the state build dedicated passenger track for top speeds higher than 90 mph on the Empire Corridor west of Albany. Although it phrased its demand in terms of top speed, there is also an implicit limit on the ability to raise average speeds without raising top speed: the Amtrak Cascades cannot run as fast on curves as the tilting system allows, because BNSF limits curve speed to avoid making passenger trains too much faster than freight trains. The line in question for Chicago-Columbus is a freight mainline, and although these have relatively high standards, they also have high traffic and their owners are unwilling to accommodate passenger service at speeds higher than today’s Amtrak’s.

  • imartinman

    The fact that Ohio John Kasich, allegedly “hates trains” should in no way be a deterrent for the rest us Ohioans to move forward aggressively on all ideas to bring rail transportation to Central Ohio. That includes the 3-C Corridor plan that Gov.Kasich rejected as his first gubernatorial act, two months before being sworn in. (How arrogant.)
    There is possibly no one on the planet who loves trains more than I do. So from that perspective, I believe trying to build high-speed rail transportation on existing lines (which no carry only freight) is a non-starter.
    Despite its great cost, we must build a new passenger rail system from the ground up, for its immediate efficiency and sustainability over the long term. We mustn’t be afraid to make investments whose benefits will accrue to our grandchildren and the global economy society in which they will be living. (Think Hoover Dam).
    – Martin Weston

  • Ben Gaieck

    Screw the states. Have the cities along the line get together and leave the states out of it altogether. The cities are the main constituents served by the line anyway, and should have the greater say.

  • Anonymous

    cities can’t bypass states. It is much easier (constitutional law) for states to preempt cities than from the federal government to preempt states.

  • Nathanael

    Alon, it’s not obvious from the picture, but this route is NOT a freight mainline.

    According to my handy railroad atlas, the majority of this route (Chicago-Lima) is leased by CSX to shortlines, and maintained to shortline standards for light traffic. The remainder is a CSX secondary line — one of three routes they have from Toledo to Columbus, and not the fastest one.

    So this would be a lot easier, institutionally, than adding trains to a mainline. It would require buying the route from CSX (which isn’t using it very much), building new track along the route, and making an agreement with the shortlines for overnight freight service.

  • Sharon Lewis

    We need some type of passenger rail ASAP! Orlando Florida has a new passenger rail service called Sunrail and it looks really nice. Why can’t we in Columbus have the same thing? We need good passenger rail to help the economy grow. We also need to cut down on driving everywhere.

  • Richard Rabinowitz

    Ah, but what about the private sector?

  • santaclaus152

    Why would anyone want to go to where the worst NHL team is, Wackhawk central? The whole country hates them.

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