Amtrak High Speed Rail Coming to Ohio?
Ohio Governor Ted Strickland has requested that Amtrak, the nation's only passenger rail system, study the possibility of connecting Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati by a passenger high speed rail line with other various stops along the way.
An Amtrak spokesman said that Strickland would have to wait 12-18 months for the high speed rail study to be completed because at least 5 other states have requested similar reports from Amtrak.
I think this plan is a good investment in the infrastructure of Ohio and a solid alternative for travelers in Ohio looking to avoid higher gas prices. Amtrak, however, should not be in charge of the passenger rail line. Even if the Ohio rail line found a way to become profitable, Amtrak would surely find a way to squander a good business opportunity. For decades now (since about 1971), Amtrak has talked about becoming self-sufficient and at least breaking even on the balance sheet. But as of yet, that has never happened. All told, the federal government has provided billions in subsidies over the years. For FY 2008 alone, Amtrak executives asked for $1.68 billion from Congress, without any strings attached for enhanced performance or to ensure efficient use of the public funds.
And despite manipulation of the numbers by Amtrak's press office, total ridership has been done on Amtrak trains for the past three years running. Even the only almost-profitable train line in America, the Northeast corridor, has seen ridership steadily decreasing.
The moral of the story here should be quite clear for Strickland and Ohio. Keep Amtrak out of the picture. High speed rail is the transportation of the future and it can connect Ohio cities in a way that cars simply cannot. But handing over the rail lines to a dying railroad bureaucracy is not the answer. Cooperation and participation of the private sector is crucial for any such plan to work effectively. A lack of private sector interest and political willpower doomed high speed rail plans in both Florida and California to failure.
Everyone has to be on board for high speed rail to be an Ohio success. If a private carrier is brought in and given the rights (for a price) to develop a line and bring in trains, Ohioans will have an alternative mode of transportation that will likely be more efficient and cost-effect than Amtrak could ever hope to be.