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Why Can’t We Just Put Trains on The Tracks?

I get this question.... a lot.

I get that. It shows me most Ohioans want the option of traveling by fast, frequent, and timely passenger trains.

It also shows an impatience born of decades of hopes raised and crushed. No fewer than eight passenger rail studies, dating back to the late 1970s occupy a dusty shelf somewhere at the Offices of the Ohio Rail Development Commission (ORDC). Not that they were necessarily bad plans. In most cases, they were stillborn because of the lack of political will.

“People will never get out of their cars”, they said.

“I can go anywhere I want in my car”, they said.

“Trains are too slow”, they said.

“The train only serves my city when I’m asleep”, they said.

“We shouldn’t be subsidizing trains”, they said.

I actually had a guy threaten me over the phone when I worked for the ORDC, saying, “You better not take funding away from my highways!” followed by a few expletives not worth repeating.

That last one happened during a time when it seemed like we finally had political momentum to get a passenger rail plan underway.

It started with GOP Governor Bob Taft asking the ORDC to develop a statewide network of passenger rail corridors with trains eventually running up to 110 MPH: not true high-speed rail but certainly competitive with driving a car. It was called “The Ohio Hub Plan”.

Democratic Governor Ted Strickland came into office and liked The Ohio Hub Plan. He asked if one corridor could be pulled from the plan and developed independently. It could and the ORDC created the “3C&D” Corridor Plan. In late 2009, the plan won a $400 million-dollar Federal Railroad Administration grant. We were rolling ahead. Detailed studies got started and the plans were for the first trains to begin operating in late 2014 or early 2015.

Then, as it happens, the political winds changed. Then-candidate John Kasich stated the 3C&D plan was dead in its tracks if he became Governor. Other GOP members of the General Assembly dubbed it “Governor Strickland’s Slow Train”, coined by a GOP State Senator who literally (and illegally) texted “I’m traveling faster than the Governor’s slow train” while driving her car to Columbus.

Kasich was true to his word, stopping the 3C&D project dead, sending the funding back to Washington, and forbidding even the mention of the words “passenger rail” among ORDC staff.

Can you blame Ohioans for being a bit skeptical of the latest Amtrak plans to expand service in our state? But something happened that was very different from the plans of the early 2000s.

Congress passed the Jobs and Infrastructure Act, and it was signed into law by President Biden.

Suddenly, it wasn’t states like Ohio acting like characters from a Charles Dickens novel saying, “Please sir...” and begging for scraps of funding to get a state-supported startup passenger rail corridor up and running.

Amtrak and the FRA showed up at our doors saying, “Hey... we’ve got $66.3 billion dollars for developing passenger rail. Want some?”

I’m simplifying things, of course. But that’s essentially what happened.

Amtrak produced “visionary” maps of possible new corridors and expansion of service to multiple trains per day in existing corridors where (at least in Northern Ohio) trains only stopped at “Zero-Dark-Thirty Hours” and even a route that serves Southern Ohio three times a week in each direction. One longtime All Aboard Ohio member once said, “Amtrak treats Ohioans like their vampires.”

Holy cow! Wait! You mean we could have trains in the daytime? Yes, was the answer in news stories that broke in January of 2021. Almost a year and a half later, look at what’s changed.

  • GOP Governor Mike DeWine, a longtime supporter of Amtrak when he served in the US Congress, finally answered with a “yes” to the FRA and ordered the ORDC to apply for planning grants to study passenger rail in two corridors: the 3C&D and Cleveland-Toledo-Detroit

  • Several Ohio metro planning organizations officially filed “expression of interest” under the FRA’s Corridor Identification Program: nominating eight more corridors, including a joint plan to connect Chicago-Fort Wayne-Lima-Columbus-Pittsburgh (The Midwest Connect Corridor) and Detroit-Toledo-Columbus.

  • Separate grant applications have been filed by two of the MPOs for the Midwest Connect and for corridors between Cleveland and Chicago, Cleveland to Buffalo, and Cleveland to Pittsburgh.

  • Several station-stop communities are applying for grants to improve station facilities and tracks. Most of those are also looking at how they will plan to develop land and existing buildings around those stations.

Lots of good news. But there’s still that lingering feeling in the backs of our minds. Is this really gonna happen? I get that, too. I was there for the whole “Kasich sent the $400 million back to Washington” thing.

I have one young man who emails me regularly: terrified that history will repeat itself.

But one of the big differences between then and now is this. It’s YOU!

Of course, All Aboard Ohio pushed the currently named “Amtrak Connects US” plan. We were on this from the moment it was announced in 2021 and we’ve last counted the meetings and media interviews we’ve been a part of since then... and still are.

But YOU made the big difference. When we asked for Ohioans to let Governor DeWine know we wanted more and better trains for Ohio.... you responded... big!.. and to the point where we found out that the Governor’s staff was fielding a huge wave of calls. He heard you, Ohio.

And state legislators on both sides are hearing from you. Both GOP and Democratic legislators in both houses of the General Assembly have initiated contact with All Aboard Ohio asking us for more information about passenger rail and what it could mean for their districts.

That’s why we’re asking for you to call or email your state legislators and let them know you support passenger rail and why you support it. Here’s how to connect with them......

One last thing. Let’s all manage our expectations. As much progress as we’ve seen, this is not something that is going to happen overnight. It may take 4 to 5 years for trains to start running.

Keep the pressure on the Governor and legislators to support every step of the process. That's our most important task from now until we can step on board the “Ohio State Limited”, the “Midwest Express” or whatever that first train is named. We will get there.

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