Midwest rail plan is promising for Ohio

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Preliminary data shows the Midwest’s most promising passenger rail route for future development is a 580-mile corridor network linking Chicago (the nation’s 3rd-largest consolidated metro area) with Detroit (12th-largest), Cleveland (15th-largest) and Pittsburgh (20th-largest) plus lots of smaller metros, tourist towns and college towns. As part of a larger network, frequent trains operating at 90-125 mph or faster could attract 7.2 million riders per year and produce revenues 157% greater than operating costs. But will the public/private sectors lead/support the development of this corridor in Ohio?

Although it is still a few months away from completion, the Midwest Regional Rail System (MWRRS) study by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and its consulting team is delivering some early returns. Those returns are in the form of ridership and operating cost-effectiveness projections that show Ohio has several potential intercity passenger rail routes deserving of strong consideration for public and private investment.

SEE SELECTED GRAPHICS AT END OF ARTICLE OR THE FULL PRESENTATION HERE (PDF) STARTING ON PAGE 48.

Indeed, one of the Ohio routes is projected to have the highest revenue-to-cost ratio of any Midwest route studied, according to preliminary data. All Aboard Ohio is already engaging stakeholders statewide to make them aware of the MWRRS findings. Please let us know of any stakeholders who should be contacted by e-mailing us at info@allaboardohio.org or calling us toll-free at 1-800-464-RAIL (7245).

Estimates of ridership, revenues, operating costs, capital costs and benefits are being developed for multiple Ohio routes, both as stand-alone corridors and as parts of an inter-connected system. The Ohio routes in this study include:

  • Cincinnati-Indianapolis-Chicago (via Greensburg, IN and/or Oxford, OH)
  • Cleveland-Columbus-Dayton-Cincinnati
  • Cleveland-Toledo-Chicago (via Fort Wayne, IN, South Bend, IN and/or Detroit)
  • Columbus-Chicago (via Lima, OH-Fort Wayne and/or Dayton-Indianapolis)
  • Detroit-Indianapolis (via Toledo-Fort Wayne)
  • Eastern Gateways (Cleveland-Buffalo, Cleveland-Pittsburgh, Columbus-Pittsburgh, plus two that bypass Ohio – Detroit-London-Buffalo and Detroit-London, ON-Toronto-Montreal)

This study represents an update of past, Midwest network planning efforts in the 2000s and in the 1990s. Those efforts ultimately resulted in upgrading the Wolverine (Detroit-Chicago) and Lincoln (St. Louis-Chicago) corridors to 110 mph standards as well as developing new services to the Quad Cities and to Rockford.

The next step in the current study will be to develop some estimates of conceptual capital costs and for user (riders) and non-user (society) benefits from three different service tier options for each route. The three service tiers are:

  • Core Express – over 125 mph, frequent service on dedicated tracks except in terminal areas, using electrically powered trains serving major metropolitan centers, and an on-time performance goal of 99 percent.
  • Regional – 90-125 mph, frequent service on dedicated and shared tracks, using electrically and diesel-powered trains connecting mid-sized urban areas with each other or with larger metropolitan areas, and an on-time performance goal of 95 percent.
  • Emerging/Feeder – up to 90 mph, several daily trains powered by diesel on shared tracks, connecting mid-sized and smaller urban areas with each other or with larger metropolitan areas, and an on-time performance goal of 85 percent.

Then, the planning team will prioritize each route for investment and at what service tier would be most beneficial for investment. So while the Wolverine and Lincoln corridors have already seen significant capital improvements upwards of $2 billion in total, the study may show they are deserving of more investment to further increase train speeds and frequencies.

Routes not yet developed also are showing strong ridership and cost-recovery potential and are likely to rank highly in this report. Twin Cities-Rochester-Madison-Milwaukee-Chicago appears to be the strongest, as-yet undeveloped route west of Chicago.

But east of Chicago, all of the Ohio routes are projected to earn revenues in excess of their operating costs when those Ohio routes are operated with a Regional service tier (90-125 mph) and in a network context.

In fact, the strongest proposed route evaluated in the entire MWRRS is a Chicago-Detroit-Toledo-Cleveland-Pittsburgh corridor network (includes branches and network connections to Grand Rapids, Lansing, Toronto and Fort Wayne). This corridor network is projected to attract 7.2 million annual riders and generate revenues that are 157 percent greater than its operating costs. This is sufficient to warrant a service tier of no less than Regional and perhaps as great at Core Express, according to the FRA’s preliminary findings.

But it is important for those of us in Ohio to remember that Eastern Gateway routes through Canada that bypass Ohio are also being considered by this report. While a Buffalo-Cleveland route with an Emerging/Feeder service tier is projected to attract 500,000 annual riders, the route through Canada is projected to be an even stronger network connection to/through Buffalo.

Although it’s not projected to be as strong as an Eastern Gateway via Pittsburgh, a route through Ontario has a political advantage. Ontario is aggressively developing passenger rail which includes planning for a 155-mph Windsor-London-Kitchener-Toronto route. Midwest routes with a Chicago hub can have their Eastern Gateway through Canada if Ohio continues to sit out the passenger rail renaissance.

At the next stakeholder workshop to be held Dec. 6 in Chicago, the FRA’s study team intends to release a draft, proposed Midwest regional high-performance rail network including:

  • Corridors with proposed levels of service
  • Potential stations
  • Capital costs, operating/maintenance costs
  • Prioritized phasing based on cost-benefit analysis

Planning documents, presentations given at the first three workshops and other materials are posted on the FRA’s MWRRS Web site at www.midwestrailplan.org. The FRA’s study team includes the Williams Sale Partnership Ltd. (WSP, based in the United Kingdom and which recently purchased U.S. engineering giant Parsons Brinckerhoff), Quetica which is a supply chain management/eCommerce consultant, and SMA Rail Consulting that provides rail consulting and internet technology services.

SEE GRAPHICS BELOW SELECTED FROM THE FULL PRESENTATION HERE (PDF) STARTING ON PAGE 48. CLICK ON THE IMAGES TO ENLARGE THEM.

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