Ohio recently was awarded $400 million in “stimulus” money to get “high-speed” trains running along the “3 C” corridor connecting Cincinnati, Columbus, and Cleveland. According to this article, the plan would be to run four trains a day with six stops — two in the Cincinnati area, Dayton, Columbus, and two in the Cleveland area — starting in 2012. The trains would reach a top speed of 79 miles per hour and would average 40 miles per hour. An Amtrak study has estimated that 500,000 riders a year — primarily sports fans, business travelers, and college students — would use the rail service if it were available.
I think the train connection is intriguing, but I am a bit skeptical. It’s weird to think that train travel, which had pretty much died by the time I was a kid in the ’60s, is the future of travel in Ohio. I think a lot of people have romantic views of train travel, primarily from watching Alfred Hitchcock movies starring Cary Grant, but I doubt that the connection between Cincinnati and Cleveland will have much in the way of glamour. The real issue is whether people will structure their travel to take one of the four trains, or whether they will hop in their cars at a time of their choosing and simply drive to their destination. Right now, you can drive from Columbus to Cleveland in a bit over two hours, your average speed is significantly higher than 40 mph, and your car takes you from your doorstep directly to your destination. I’m particularly doubtful of people taking the train from Columbus to Cincinnati because the route veers through Dayton, which is not on the direct route, making the trip a lot longer than it would be by car.
I’m not sure precisely how the $400 million will be spent, but a lot of infrastructure work needs to be done. Columbus does not have a train station, although the convention center supposedly was designed to include an area that could be easily modified to serve as a train hub. Ohio also is going to have to come up with at least $17 million a year to subsidize the route, and this is a time of great budget pressure. If the state is serious about it, legislators are going to have to make some tough budget choices, like taking money from ongoing highway construction and widening projects and allocating it to the rail program instead.
Still, getting a train route started probably is not a bad idea. A rail connection would provide an alternative to driving on a much-traveled route that could come in handy the next time gas prices spike to more than $4 per gallon. It also would be a way to connect Columbus to the Amtrak system, and could encourage more train travel generally. If the system gets up and running, I think a lot of people will try it at least once, perhaps on a one-day trip to a sporting event in one of the “3 C” cities. If it turns out to be a pleasant way to travel, it could become part of the routine.