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Published: Tuesday, 10/23/2012

Ohio said to lack passenger rail support

Roger Shope of Bowling Green, a TMACOG member and member of the Ohio Higher Education Rail Network, left, speaks with Thomas C. Carper, chair-man of the board, before the forum at the Toledo Club. Roger Shope of Bowling Green, a TMACOG member and member of the Ohio Higher Education Rail Network, left, speaks with Thomas C. Carper, chair-man of the board, before the forum at the Toledo Club.
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Ridership has "exploded" on several Illinois routes after the state government agreed to pay for additional trains, the passenger-train company's chairman told a luncheon rail forum Monday at the Toledo Club.

"Americans will ride trains if the service is there, if there are competitive trip times and frequent departures," chairman Thomas Carper told the Passenger Rail Forum sponsored by the Northwest Ohio Passenger Rail Association and the Toledo Metropolitan Area Council of Governments.

But Amtrak cannot afford similar service expansion in states like Ohio where it receives no state support, Mr. Carper told the audience of about 140 local leaders and passenger-train advocates.

"We have no on-going state partnership in Ohio," Mr. Carper said. Without state support, he added later, service expansion is impossible "because, frankly, we don't have the money."

While he professed being a staunch supporter of Amtrak's long-distance, overnight passenger trains as well, the Amtrak chairman said the "sweet spot" for passenger rail is trips of 500 miles or shorter, which account for 79 percent of travel more than 50 miles.

Between air and rail travel, Amtrak now handles 96 percent of the Los Angeles-San Diego market, 89 percent of Chicago-Milwaukee, and 77 percent between New York and Washington.

Between Detroit and Chicago, it carries just 12 percent of passengers using either mode, although Amtrak and the Michigan Department of Transportation hope to increase rail's share with on-going projects to increase train speeds to up to 110 mph.

Such faster speeds would cut the running time between Detroit and Chicago to four hours from 5-1/2, he said. A similar 110-mph project is under way between Chicago and St. Louis. 

Along with creating an option for travelers -- especially older or disabled people for whom auto or airplane travel is impractical if not impossible -- improved passenger-rail service also can promote community development and is a direct and indirect jobs creator, Mr. Carper said.

During 2011, he noted, Amtrak spent more than $10 million buying equipment and supplies from Ohio businesses even though its train service is limited to three long-distance routes that stop at Ohio stations mostly during the wee hours.

In New Buffalo, Mich., and Saco, Maine, developers have built new train stations for Amtrak to support nearby housing construction, Mr. Carper said, while in Normal, Ill., a new station has become a centerpiece of downtown redevelopment.

But when audience members said Amtrak should add short-distance, daytime trains to its route through Toledo, Sandusky, and Cleveland, Mr. Carper said support for such trains has to originate in Ohio.

"It takes everybody at the table," the Amtrak chairman said, and new trains won't happen "if people are looking to Amtrak to supply the genesis for it."

Ohio in 2010 received $400 million in federal funds to pay for track improvements and train equipment to establish new trains between Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati, but in 2011 the in-coming Kasich administration returned the money, saying the state could not afford the trains' operating subsidies.

U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo), who introduced Mr. Carper and offered some comments during the question session that followed his prepared remarks, said she is "very worried about Ohio's backwardness" when it comes to transportation planning.

"There are people who serve us who live in the past, and don't see where the country is headed," she said.

"They were good projects," Mr. Carper said of the Ohio plan and one in Wisconsin that was also canceled by state leaders after a new administration took office in 2011. "Maybe the timing isn't right. ... But if the need is there, it'll someday be met. A state has to be willing to pay the operating subsidy."

The money turned back by Ohio and Wisconsin was used on rail projects in other states, including Michigan.

"It's great to see what has happened in states that have benefited" from that money, said Roger Shope, the state campaign coordinator for the Ohio Higher Education Rail Network, a branch of the rail-advocacy group All Aboard Ohio that is promoting rail development as a means to support student access to higher education.

"We need more and better transportation options," Mr. Shope said. "The students, they get it, and their parents are learning to get it. When the leadership of this region comes along...."

Contact David Patch at:
or 419-724-6094. 

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