September 16, 2013
Column | basic training

Same song, second verse

Last year's proposal for a new passenger rail system in Ohio proved to be a bust. Now, advocates are back with a new version that's bigger, badder, and even more wrong-headed than the last one.

By Art van Bodegraven and Kenneth B. Ackerman

We periodically find it useful to remind ourselves that the world of logistics includes—or should—people movement as well as product movement. The two, while independent, share some interests and concerns, and might benefit from a little conceptual cross-pollination. We do not always assume the superiority of European practices, but in this case, their professional logistics perspectives include both goods and persons.

In the U.S., the worlds came together in the heyday of railroads, and rail solutions to people-movement challenges still pop up from time to time. Don't get us wrong. We are freaky for trains and seek out passenger rail alternatives all over Europe, in touristic excursions elsewhere, and whenever caught in the Boston-Washington corridor.

But realistically, passenger rail in the U.S. is a historical curiosity that, over time, has gone from breakthrough technology to a money pit of epic proportions. In the day, railroads made horses and wagon trains obsolete and opened up the West to expansion, with both goods and people moving vast distances relatively quickly and at reasonable cost.

On the people side of the equation, the automobile changed all that, with bus lines handling quantity movement in the days before virtually everyone had access to autos. Over time, over-the-road truck transport eroded rail's dominant position in freight movement. And the railroads' refusal to accept the inevitable led to the deterioration of freight movement and the collapse of passenger service, following a long period of bleeding cash.

Today, bus lines are a near afterthought, and the limited remaining passenger rail service requires billions of dollars in subsidies. But rail freight is making a comeback, thanks to factors of cost and environmental impact, and the rail infrastructure is being rebuilt and expanded. (Limited small bus service is, in fact, serving largely business markets in localized intercity movement, by the way.)

No, not really. There are railroad buffs, environmental activists, Europhiles, and those-who-know-better-than-the-rest-of-us who are promoting one rail solution after another all over the country. We got our tighty-whities in a bunch a year or so ago when a very serious proposal was mounted for a passenger rail system to link Cincinnati, Columbus, and Cleveland, Ohio, with fervent support from the usual suspects, fueled by false hopes and the promise of "free" money from the federal government.

Granted, the headline was seductively attractive. Only later did we learn that 1) travel time would be longer than by highway; 2) the trains would use existing freight rail track infrastructure, with freight trains having the right of way; 3) schedules and elapsed times would not allow day trips (morning departure, evening return); 4) the states and municipalities would need to come up with hundreds of millions of dollars to fund design and construction; 5) ongoing maintenance was unfunded and would fall to the state; 7) speeds would be 25 or 30 percent of the much-hyped "high speed" rate; and 6) travel would cost more than either flying or driving. What a deal! How could we possibly have said no?

You would think that we would have learned by now that putting tail fins on a Yugo would not make it a better automobile, any more than added décolletage makes Miss Piggy a hotter commodity on And so it is with passenger rail.

The latest flim-flam job is bigger, badder, bolder, and even more wrong-headed than the last one. Apparently traveling in disguise, it originates in Fort Wayne, Ind., as a proposal to link Chicago and Columbus. It would feature intermediate stops in Ohio (Marysville, Kenton, and Lima) and Indiana (Fort Wayne, Warsaw, Plymouth, Valparaiso, and Gary).

As with the earlier scheme, the project is being proposed as a high-speed line, reaching speeds of over 100 miles per hour. Funding has not been secured, or even seriously pursued, with rosy hopes that some combination of federal, state/local, railroad, and private money would provide the expected $1.3 billion needed. When completed, the system would be handed off to a private operator.

We may have reached the "Really?" moment. When has any major project been completed at or near the projected cost? What would committing to this program expose us to, down the road and in perpetuity? Who really benefits from passenger rail access—Columbus, Chicago, or the economic powerhouses in between? Plymouth, Ind.? Kenton, Ohio? Say what?

With multiple one-hour flights daily on three major airlines (often at very attractive fares), why is a train with nine intermediate stops a superior solution? How much less expensive, faster, and more flexible would it be than the four-hour trip by car? Have the railroads not had about all the loss they can stomach with the Amtrak solution? Why would they commit to building new infrastructure for passenger service when they're already funding the development of a profitable freight infrastructure?

So far, Northeast Indiana has spent $100,000 on an initial study (with some of the money coming from Columbus). A $2 million environmental study will be required as a prelude to asking the federal government for assistance in funding a $10 million engineering plan. What universe are these people living in? Are the real winners here those conducting studies and the down-the-road private operator that will run the system once others have paid for its creation?

In essence, we, for a variety of reasons, are being pushed to turn back the hands of time and adopt technology and solutions that became outmoded decades ago, based on assumptions that don't apply in our geography, are patently false, and/or no longer contribute to progress. Where might it all end?

Maybe we can save the environment, extend the useful life of the existing highway infrastructure, support organic food production with natural fertilizers, reduce collective stress levels, and enable a manufacturing renaissance by replacing automobiles with Amish buggies powered by single horses.

An administrator has been quoted as saying of the Columbus/Chicago line, "This actually could be profitable." This is usually called "whistling in the dark." Just imagine—investing $1.3 billion and who knows how much more on something that maybe, just maybe, could work.

Here's the real issue. We have no quarrel with passenger rail, per se. We would love to have genuinely useful rail options all over the place. But we struggle with the national approach to the challenge, which consists of hundreds of individual, specific, limited, uncoordinated, and incompatible proposals for bits and pieces of a national system.

If some entity could make an economic case for an integrated national system that would complement present highway and air systems and not either compete with them or provide redundant services, we could get behind that.

Until that day, we cannot see pouring money down a rat hole for someone's pet project. In the logistics of people movement, we do not have the geography or culture that would make sensible use of a German, Dutch, English, French, or other European model. So, replicating one of those, even on a limited basis, is probably not a 21st century solution. And by the way, those systems and underlying infrastructures do virtually nothing for the genuine and serious need for a freight rail infrastructure that will be sustainable well into the future.

About the Authors

Art van Bodegraven
Art van Bodegraven was, among other roles, chief design officer for the DES Leadership Academy. He passed away on June 18, 2017. He will be greatly missed.

More articles by Art van Bodegraven
Kenneth B. Ackerman
Kenneth B. Ackerman, president of The Ackerman Company, can be reached at (614) 488-3165.

More articles by Kenneth B. Ackerman

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