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In Ohio, even rail supporters doubt slow travel times will attract riders

(The following story by James Nash and Marla Matzer Rose appeared on The Columbus Dispatch website on January 30, 2010.)

COLUMBUS, Ohio A business traveler hoping to take a train from Columbus to Cleveland would have to leave the capital city at 6:32 a.m. and wrap things up in Cleveland to catch the last train at 3:30 p.m.

That hypothetical passenger would end up spending 6 hours on the train, compared with less than six hours in Cleveland.

People wishing to catch the train from Columbus to Cleveland or Cincinnati for sports or other evening events are out of luck, unless they're willing to stay overnight.

So just who's going to use what's being hailed as the greatest transportation innovation in Ohio in decades?

Nearly 500,000 people a year, according to Amtrak. Rail advocates say passengers would include college students, the elderly, people without cars, and business travelers who would work on their computers or phones while riding the rails.

Plans for rail service linking Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton and Cincinnati came into sharper focus Thursday with the Obama administration's announcement that Ohio will receive $400 million to begin running trains in 2012.

"This is like coming into kindergarten or first grade for Ohio," said Ken Prendergast, executive director of All Aboard Ohio, a Cleveland-based rail advocacy group. "It's not going to serve everybody, but I think it's going to serve enough people to meet (the state's) goals."

Skeptics, however, say the planned service is too limited, slow and cumbersome to be useful to all but a small number of travelers. They predict that nearly empty trains will require much more than the estimated $17 million annual subsidy the state is expected to contribute.

"You can't use it for an Indians game, you can't use it for a Browns game," said Matt Mayer, president of the Buckeye Institute for Public Policy Solutions, a free-market policy-research group. "If you're traveling (to Cleveland) on business, you have to leave at 3:30 and take the train back for another three hours."

Trains would depart the Greater Columbus Convention Center six times a day between 6:32 a.m. and 3:32 p.m. In addition to Columbus, the trains would stop at two sites in Cleveland, Dayton, the Cincinnati suburb of Sharonville and Cincinnati itself.

Fares are expected to be $18 to $25 for a one-way ticket between Columbus and Cleveland or Cincinnati.

"I would love to be able to sit back and let someone else do the driving," said Peter Welin, a partner in the Columbus office of Cleveland-based law firm Thompson Hine. "I travel a lot between here and Cleveland. If what they're saying is true about it being about three hours to Cleveland and a $20 fare, that sounds great."

However, even boosters say there's a limit to their enthusiasm. Cities are still vying to be added to the line, which would add to the travel time. The trains are expected to reach maximum speeds of 79 mph but average 39 mph along the entire route when stops are included.

"It's a neat concept, but I don't really see it for business travel, to be honest," said Angel Harris, an agent with Uniglobe Travel Designers in Bexley.

"If people are going 'green,' they may look at that. It may appeal to leisure travelers who are now booking vacation packages with flights that leave out of Cleveland or Cincinnati. But unless it's high-speed, I think most people would prefer to drive. High-speed would change everything."

The Greater Columbus Convention Center -- built on the site of the city's former Union Station -- has been identified as the likely site for Columbus' train station.

The convention center was built with knock-out panels that open up to the train tracks, allowing space for trains to come in underneath the building, said Stu Nicholson, spokesman for the Ohio Rail Development Commission.

Amtrak estimates that 478,000 people will ride the trains in Ohio each year, a number based largely on its experience in other states and Ohio's population. The number would roughly triple if Ohio advanced to true high-speed rail with top speeds of 110 mph, Amtrak estimates.

One academic who's studied the U.S. transportation system says Amtrak's numbers are likely inflated.

"Amtrak exists because the government wills it into existence," said James E. Moore, chairman of the University of Southern California's Daniel J. Epstein Department of Industrial Systems Engineering.

"It's a completely political animal, just as these new systems will be completely political animals rather than vibrant financial enterprises. The plans always tend to be very optimistic about costs, ridership and demand."

Monday, February 1, 2010

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