3-C Corridor High-Speed Rail Proposed for Passenger Use

Fri September 18, 2009 - Midwest Edition
Linda J. Hutchinson

Ohio’s 3-C Quick Start program will build on the basics of rails, signals, and stops, in preparation for the HSR to be built at a later date.
Ohio’s 3-C Quick Start program will build on the basics of rails, signals, and stops, in preparation for the HSR to be built at a later date.



America has spent $1.8 trillion and 60 years building one of the most advanced highway and aviation systems in the world. Rising energy costs, pollution and other environmental concerns, and increasing congestion at airports and on roadways, means that other methods of moving people and freight must be implemented.

President Obama unveiled his vision for building high-speed rail in 100 to 600 mi. corridors to connect communities across America on April 16, 2009. An “unprecedented $8 billion investment in high-speed rail,” is to come in the form of American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) funding and “is considered to be a down payment on a national network of corridors, along with $1 billion per year for at least 5 years [proposed in FY 2010 budget].” Completion of this vision “will require long-term commitment from both the federal government and states”, according to a White House press release.

Both intra-city and inter-city high-speed rail is planned, according to the Executive Summary of a plan commissioned by Ray LaHood, United States Secretary of Transportation.

According to an ODOT press release, “the most easily recognized HSR [high-speed rail] project is the Northeast Corridor [NEC] Transportation Project that runs between Washington D.C., New York, and Boston. It offers Amtrak’s 150 mph train service, known as Acela. Due to its success, a number of new HSR corridors are being planned by individual states. These plans range from upgrades to existing rail lines, to new rail lines to be used exclusively for the 150 to 250 mph trains.”

Based on the NEC’s success, states considering implementing HSR hope to promote economic growth, create new choices for travelers, reduce national dependence on foreign oil, and to promote livable communities in both urban and rural areas.

Ohio’s portion of the proposed HSR is known as the 3-C “Quick Start” Corridor and includes the areas in and around Cleveland, Columbus, Springfield, Dayton, and Cincinnati, with intermediate stops yet to be determined, according to ODOT.

“The [Ohio Rail Development] Commission’s mission is to plan, promote, and implement the improved movement of goods and people faster and safer on a rail transportation network connecting Ohio to the nation and the world. The mission is to be accomplished through a coordinated freight and passenger rail system, which is an integral part of a seamless, intermodal transportation network contributing to Ohio’s quality of life and economic development,” said Stuart Nicholson. Nicholson heads up the Ohio Rail Development Commission (ORDC) in Columbus, Ohio. The ORDC was established in 1994 and is an independent commission within ODOT.

Using funds from the Federal Highway Administration the ORDC is charged with “providing grants, loans, and other assistance to perform a vital economic development function by assisting businesses locating or expanding in Ohio with rail spurs and other rail infrastructure,” said Nicholson. The goal of the ORDC is to “rehabilitate light density branch lines on small short-line and regional railroads; assist in the acquisition and continued operation of branch lines; address special rail problems such as mainline congestion and assisting businesses with rail-related issues; assist with promotion of the rail-related tourism industry; and maintain Ohio’s readiness to move toward intercity passenger rail service at both conventional and high speeds through a variety of planning initiatives,” according to an ORDC press release.

Ohio’s 3-C Quick Start program will build on “the basics of rails, signals, and stops, in preparation for the HSR to be built at a later date. These first runs will travel at 79 miles per hour, the conventional speed of existing railway trains, and will be typical push-pull trains with either two locomotives or locomotive/cab car combination,” said Nicholson.

Ken Prendergast, executive director of All Aboard Ohio, said “The biggest obstacle to getting high-speed rail is not environmental, engineering, or construction issues. That obstacle is politics.” Another obstacle is a lack of experience with rail travel. Ohio has not undertaken a project like this in a very long time.

“Because of the lack of familiarity it is easiest to say no,” he said.

“We have an emerging mobility crisis,” said Prendergast. There are four significant reasons for this. One is the babyboomers’ frustration with driving. In Ohio, 13 percent of drivers are 65 and older. By 2030 it is estimated that 20 percent will be 65 and older.

“Age 65 is a critical year when our eyesight worsens, reaction times slow, stamina diminishes. This demographic is made up of people who can still contribute to the economy, but not if they’re stuck at home.”

Prendergast estimated that 8.5 percent of Ohio households have no access to a car or other personal vehicle for a variety of reasons, or are physically unable to drive. This figure is significantly higher “in densely populated areas.” In Columbus, 15 percent don’t have access to a car and in Cleveland, Dayton, and Cincinnati the estimate is more than 20 percent.

“A population without access to transportation have little or no ability to participate in the state’s economy unless we give them other choices,” he said.

Low-cost transportation is essential to quality of life issues, besides the economic development angle.

“Greyhound is not too interested in short-distance markets and closed many of its bus stops in the 80’s and 90’s,” said Prendergast. “The Ohio Senate Transportation Commission believes that where the Greyhound bus terminals were is where there is a market for rail service.”

Building HSR will contribute “big spinoff benefits to freight railway lines,” said Prendergast. Currently freight trains are limited to 70 to 90 mph and existing tracks don’t have signal capacity to handle more trains. Also, long sections of passing tracks will be needed, and in some places, a second set of tracks must be laid. These additions “should enable freight to increase by 15 percent.” More freight on the trains means less freight on the roads, creating an “estimated savings of $3 billion per year to ODOT alone in fewer repairs to roads and bridges.”

Railroads have played a significant part in America’s history for more than two centuries, but the fact that the rights-of-way are privately owned is not well known. Although Amtrak is owned and operated by the federal government, and has been since the 1970’s, the rails are on private property and must be leased.

According to “A Vision for HighSpeed Rail in America, Highlights of Strategic Plan” dated April 16, 2009, that accompanied President Obama’s announcement: “In 1970, Congress created the National Railroad Passenger Corporation [Amtrak] to preserve remaining passenger service over a national system of routes. Amtrak was formed as a private, for-profit Federally-sponsored corporation. The company was granted rights of access to tracks owned by the private railroads at incremental cost, along with operating priority over freight trains, in exchange for relieving the railroads of their direct passenger service obligations and associated financial losses.

“Amtrak relies almost exclusively on annual federal appropriations to cover both its capital needs and operating deficits, making long-term planning decisions difficult. Amtrak’s capital investments have largely failed to keep up with the needs of its existing fleet and infrastructure, and aside from the Northeast Corridor [NEC] Improvement Project, few upgrades to the system have been made. States like California, Illinois, North Carolina, Washington and others have independently sponsored rail services and capital investments, but significant modernization of rail systems and service has remained out of reach of many states. While other modes have historically benefited from dedicated Federal funding for infrastructure investment, rail has had no such Federal capital matching source,” according to the report.

The maximum speed set for Amtrak by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) is 79 mph and Ohio’s proposed 3-C will be held to that. The FRA must develop the plan for both long and short term corridor development. Ohio has filed a pre-application for ARRA stimulus funding with FRA for 3-C “Quick Start”. The formal application deadline is Oct. 1.

Although Amtrak routes are limited, the national average per mile fare is about 14 cents, or roughly $20 to $25 for a one-way ticket from Columbus to Cleveland, according to Prendergast.

“Studies done by ODOT reveal that about 5.8 million Ohioans live within 15 miles of the proposed 3-C Corridor made up of Cleveland-Columbus-Cincinnati, making it the most densely-populated rail corridor in the United States without passenger rail service,” said Prendergast.

A March 2009 Quinnipiac University Poll “indicates the majority of Ohioans [64 percent] think the redevelopment of passenger rail is a good idea. Support was especially strong among the 18 to 35 age group [73 percent] and above 60 percent for all age and economic status groups,” Prendergast said.

Benefits to Ohioans from HSR are many, according to proponents. Not only will the ability to travel be extended to demographic groups not currently served, but the placement of train stops “serves as a magnet for mixed-use economic development,” according to an ODOT press release.

In other cities where HSR has been implemented, stations serve not only as hubs for inter and intra-city passenger trains, but for local mass transit, and ideally, airports. Small businesses that thrive on rail passenger traffic include dry cleaners, newsstands, delis and cafes, and coffee shops.

“A new Columbus station could complement development in the Arena District or Convention Center. A new Springfield station would be right in the heart of downtown Springfield’s urban core redevelopment. The potential Dayton-area stop feeds such job and education centers as Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Wright State University and the University of Dayton,” according to ODOT’s press release.

In 2008, Amtrak spent $12.6 million with 90 businesses.

It is estimated that a fully-built Ohio Hub system will have created 6,000 construction jobs and at least 16,000 additional jobs through economic development in and around the stops and along corridors.

The need for improved railroad rights-of-way, bridges, tunnel upgrades and underground utilities can be a source of business for heavy construction contractors as well as companies supplying aggregates, steel, concrete, pipe, wire and electronic signal systems, according to Prendergast.

Fourteen Ohio companies already supply everything from roller bearings to paint for rail cars, light rail vehicles, streetcars, and locomotives.

According to the American Public Transit Association, it is reasonable to expect 24 new jobs to be created for every $1 million invested in public transportation projects.

Prendergast believes federal stimulus money, because of strong support from the president, will be made available for HSR, stations, and some retail development.

“In Cleveland there has been economic development over the tracks, providing train/pedestrian links between the convention center, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and stadiums. In Columbus, Dayton and Cincinnati, the convention centers are on or next to 3-C tracks.”

Prendergast believes that energy use in the HSR is more efficient than automobile use, it also is more efficient regarding environmental issues.

“All major cities have air quality non-attainment standards,” meaning that they have not lived up to expected, or state or federally-mandated, air quality projections. “Half of pollution comes from cars and trucks,” he said.

Once built, state paid operating costs will run about $10 million per year because the tracks and railways are privately owned. In contrast, highways and airports are publicly owned. Amtrak is a government owned asset using privately owned property — making passenger trains less profitable.

“Freight has higher margins,” he said.

An economic development study done in 2007 showed that for every $1 spent on 3-C, the state of Ohio would get back $1.80 in economic benefit such as track and station construction jobs, the renovation of rail cars, and workforce groceries, according to Prendergast.

F.K. Plous, director of Communications at Corridor Capital LLC in Chicago is another strong proponent of HSR. He’s had the opportunity to see first-hand what can happen as blighted communities across America embrace this mode of travel.

“The real impact is when the construction is finished,” said Plous. “That’s when the real estate industry starts looking at an area seriously. Although federal grants for new railroad infrastructure create substantial numbers of new jobs during the construction phase, the real payoff from a passenger rail project is the downstream economic development that is attracted to the areas the trains serve. As more and more people use the trains — either to commute to work or for discretionary intercity business and personal travel — the property around the key stations become more valuable.”

According to Plous, a major issue with converting the rail system to a passenger/freight joint use is that “the rail system has been reconstructed and re-engineered to serve the needs of freight trains only, so that adding large numbers of passenger trains to the mix will tend to degrade freight service. The negative impact on freight service becomes even more severe as the passenger trains go faster.”

As an example, “Canadian National Railways says that on its 335-mile route between Toronto and Montreal, each 100-mph passenger train uses up the equivalent of 5 freight-train slots. The faster a train runs, the more space it has to have in front of it in which to stop. Each train is given a slot — a period of time in which it has permission to occupy a given stretch of track. When passenger trains are moving at 100 mph while freights are moving at 50 mph, the slow freights have to be kept out of the way of the passenger trains, which reduces the line’s freight-carrying capacity.”

As a result, “much of the $8 billion scheduled to be spent on passenger rail infrastructure under the ARRA will be devoted to building additional track,” said Plous. “During the ’bad old days’ of the 1960s and 1970s, when the new Interstate highways were stealing away much of the railroad industry’s traffic, the railroads adjusted and economized by downsizing — converting double track to single track with sidings and allowing track maintenance to lapse from high-speed to low-speed standards. Now, under the impact of growing freight traffic plus federal investment in passenger trains, that downsized physical plant has to be built up again. So expect to see lots of new capacity come on line.”

Plous added, “The U.S., Canada and Mexico are among the few nations in which the rail network is essentially owned by private business corporations rather than by government. The North American system of ownership has some deficiencies, but most authorities agree it works pretty well, especially when it’s deregulated, which it has been since 1980. The bankruptcies of the 1970s are long gone. The North American railroad industry is basically healthy, track is in the best condition it’s ever been in the industry’s history, and, until the recent recession, rail traffic and rail profits were growing strongly. In fact, of the three basic transportation industries in the country — air, rail and truck — the freight railroads have weathered the recession best.”

The problem is how to put federal money into a private asset like a railroad without subjecting the shareholders of the property to an excess of federal control.

“The railroads own their tracks and signals, as well as the land under their tracks, they pay billions of dollars every year in property taxes to the counties in which their lines are located, and in return they enjoy control over their property just like any other property owner. The railroads are the only U.S. transportation industry that owns its own land and infrastructure. Historically, government has financed, and owned, the highways, airports and waterways, but most of the country’s railroad tracks are privately owned, and until very recently, railroad managements were very suspicious of accepting money from the federal government, even for improvements they knew they needed. The fear was that if the government were going to invest in the railroads it would demand some ownership rights as well and perhaps start forcing the railroads to engage in practices contrary to the interests of the private shareholders,” Plous said.

“So something like this is going to happen with the improvements coming on our privately owned railroads. If a state wants to increase the number or the speeds of the passenger trains on tracks in its state, it will apply for a federal rail infrastructure grant, match it with state money, then hire the privately owned railroad to build the new track and install the signals and other command-and-control technologies needed to keep the trains safely separated. And the railroads will continue to own and control these new assets. In fact, this already has been happening on a smaller scale in communities with commuter-rail service.

“Since the mid-90s the Federal Transit Administration has dispensed grants to state DOTs seeking to start up commuter rail service between large cities and their suburbs. To accommodate the new commuter trains, additional track is needed, so federal money is matched with state money, and the money is paid to the railroad to build the extra track and signals. When it’s all finished, the railroad owns and controls these new improvements, and the commuter authority negotiates with the railroad for slots in which in can operate its passenger trains. When the commuter trains aren’t running, the railroad’s freight trains have complete access to the government-sponsored improvements,” Plous said.

Ten major corridors are being identified for potential high-speed rail projects. They are:

• California Corridor (Bay Area, Sacramento to Los Angeles, San Diego),

• Pacific Northwest Corridor (Eugene, Portland, Tacoma, Seattle, Vancouver BC),

• South Central Corridor (Tulsa, Oklahoma City, Dallas/Fort Worth, Austin, San Antonio, Little Rock),

• Gulf Coast Corridor (Houston, New Orleans, Mobile, Birmingham, Atlanta),

• Chicago Hub Network (Chicago, Milwaukee, Twin Cities, St. Louis, Kansas City, Detroit, Toledo, Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Louisville),

• Florida Corridor (Orlando, Tampa, Miami),

• Southeast Corridor ( Washington, Richmond, Raleigh, Charlotte, Atlanta, Macon, Columbia, Savannah, Jacksonville),

• Northern New England Corridor (Boston, Montreal, Portland, Springfield, New Haven, Albany),

• Keystone Corridor (Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg,)

• Empire Corridor (Albany, Buffalo)

Opportunities exist to compete for funds for improvements to the nation’s only existing high-speed rail service, the Northeast Corridor (Washington, Baltimore, Wilmington, Philadelphia, Newark, New York City, New Haven, Providence, and Boston) and for establishment and upgrades to passenger rail services in other parts of the country, according to Plous.

“The California Department of Transportation has some good numbers on the economic growth ignited by the 66 daily round trips it now buys from Amtrak. My favorite is Emeryville, the little town on the northwest corner of Oakland where Amtrak and Caltrans built a major station in 1999. The station, which is served by 32 daily Caltrans/Amtrak trains plus two Amtrak long-distance trains and the Caltrans-Amtrak bus-feeder network, became the center of a massive business development — loft conversions, restaurants, two huge hotels, a supermarket, a shopping mall and dozens of new businesses, including the headquarters of Pixar Studios and Chiron Laboratories. The town literally went from a brownfield toxic waste dump to a hot new Yuppie location. The Amtrak station was not the only reason, of course — Emeryville undertook a serious self-reinvention effort — but without the trains the turnaround could never have succeeded as it did,” said Plous.

Plous is optimistic about Ohio’s plans.

“Could passenger rail do similar things for the economy of Ohio? I have no doubt. Ohio has a higher population density than France, home of the TGVs, and its major and minor cities — as well as the key cities in neighboring states — are lined up in corridors of ideal length for service by passenger trains. Think Detroit-Toledo-Sandusky-Cleveland-Youngstown-Pittsburgh, or Cleveland-Columbus-Dayton-Cincinnati, or Cleveland-Erie-Buffalo. Plus most of the potential passenger-rail routes in Ohio can directly serve Cleveland-Hopkins airport because the main line passes right along the southern boundary of the airport where the rapid-transit station already is located. Very few states are so favorably configured for passenger rail as Ohio.”

Plous, Nicholson, and Prendergast all agree that HSR is green.

“Today’s intercity passenger rail service consumes one-third less energy per passenger-mile than cars. It is estimated that if we built high speed rail lines on all federally-designated corridors, it could result in an annual reduction of 6 billion pounds of CO2,” released into the atmosphere, according to Nicholson.

“It is estimated that our current transportation system consumes 70 percent of our oil demand and contributes 29 percent of greenhouse gas emissions,” said Prendergast.

ODOT estimates that HSR would generate “an annual fuel savings of approximately 9.4 million gallons.”

HSR is not without its detractors. Among them are The Cato Institute, the Reason Foundation and the Heritage Foundation.

Also at issue is the need for on-going subsidies from state and local governments to cover revenue shortfalls inherent in all previous passenger rail traffic use.

SIDEBAR 1:

Rail Designations

High-speed rail (HSR) is “a family of transportation options” that address longer-distance passenger transport needs in heavily populated corridors and can be broken down into several classifications. HSR and Intercity Passenger Rail (IPR) are often used interchangeably with designations intended for corridor runs between major cities.

• HSR — Express is frequent, express service between major population centers 200 to 600 mi. apart, with few intermediate stops. Proposed plans are for top speeds of at least 150 mph on completely grade-separated, dedicated rights-of-way with the possible exception of some shared track in terminal areas. These are intended to relieve air and highway capacity constraints.

• HSR — Regional. Relatively frequent service between major and moderate population centers 100 to 500 mi. apart, with some intermediate stops. Top speeds of 110 to 150 mph, grade-separated, with some dedicated and some shared track (using positive train control technology). Intended to relieve highway and, to some extent, air capacity constraints.

• Emerging HSR — Developing corridors of 100 to 500 mi., with strong potential for future HSR Regional and/or Express service. Top speeds of up to 90 to 110 mph on primarily shared track (eventually using positive train control technology), with advanced grade crossing protection or separation. Intended to develop the passenger rail market, and provide some relief to other modes.

• Conventional Rail — Traditional intercity passenger rail services of more than 100 mi. with as little as one to as many as 7 to 12 daily frequencies; may or may not have strong potential for future high-speed rail service. Top speeds of up to 90 mph generally on shared track. Intended to provide travel options and to develop the passenger rail market for further development in the future.

Corridor lengths are approximate; slightly shorter or longer intercity services may still help meet strategic goals in a cost effective manner, according to the executive summary plan.

SIDEBAR 2:

Who Will Ride Trains in Ohio?

“If the experience of other states is any indication, a broad range of people will ride reliable, frequent and convenient passenger trains in Ohio. They will ride for business, connect to jobs, education, health care, recreation, shopping and a variety of other reasons,” according to ODOT and ALL Aboard Ohio.

ODOT offered the following by way of explanation:

• Demographic studies show 5.8 million Ohioans live within 15 mi. of the 3-C Corridor (Cleveland-Columbus-Cincinnati) making it the most densely-populated rail corridor in the United States (273 people per sq. mi.) without passenger rail service. Ohioans, on average, spend almost 30 percent of their household income on transportation according to the last U.S. Census: one of the highest rates in the nation.

• North Carolina saw an economic development return of $1.45 on each state dollar invested in the rehabilitation of a dozen train stations, including peripheral development.

• In Maine, along the Downeaster route: two hotels and a $20 million residential and retail complex were built within two blocks of the Old Orchard Beach train station. Developers broke ground on a $10 million renovation of old mill property near the new $2.5 million Saco station. That renovation is now retail, office, and residential mixed-use development.

• A multi-modal facility in Meridian, Miss., has since generated more than $10 million of private investment in their downtown area.

• Lafayette, Ind.’s train station project led to a neighboring $36 million development.

• Maine hosts one of the fastest growing passenger routes in the nation. In fact, the state-supported Amtrak Downeaster led the nation in 2008 with an increase of ridership with more than 474,000 passengers traveling the Portland and Boston Corridor, an increase of over 31 percent over the previous year. The Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority reports a graduated fare structure is a major reason 25 percent of their riders are business travelers. Its marketing also successfully ties in to sports, arts and entertainment events all along the corridor. (Source: NNEPRA)

• California: Since its inception in 1998, the California Capitol Corridor has grown service from 8 daily trains and 463,000 annual passengers to 32 trains per day attracting nearly 1.7 million riders. Approximately 60 percent of their riders travel on business or commute to jobs and are frequent users of discounted, multi-ride tickets. Another 20 percent travel for personal reasons and 14 percent for leisure. (Source: CCCJPA)

• Michigan: Since initiating state-supported service in 1994, ridership on 5 routes has grown from a total of slightly over 439,000 passengers to approximately 721,000 passengers in 2008. Increases in both train frequencies and better services are attributed as reasons for the increases. (Source: MDOT)