Securing Ohio’s Energy Future Must Include Plans to Resurrect Passenger Trains
Obama in Ohio Outlines Energy Plans, Calls for High-Speed Trains
By John Michael Spinelli
COLUMBUS, OHIO: Returning to Ohio for the third time since the end of the Democratic presidential primaries in early June, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, the presumptive candidate for president who lost the state to New York Sen. Hillary Clinton in March but who hopes to reclaim it in the General Election in November against Arizona Sen. John S. McCain, the likely Republican leader who history shows needs its 20 Electoral College votes to win the White House, didn’t specifically mention passenger rail in his prepared remarks on securing the nation’s energy future, but his proposed investment plans to fund new, alternative forms of energy should not leave the station without making room for the resurrection of passenger rail service, a policy Gov. Ted Strickland, lawmakers and community leaders have signaled they’re on board with.
OBAMA OUTLINES ENERGY SECURITY PLANS IN DAYTON
Obama spoke in Dayton, Ohio, on Friday at a small high school gym to people who traveled to hear his plans for securing Ohio’s and the nation’s future on energy. With oil at record levels and the price of gasoline rising nearly every day, Ohioans, like many other Americans, are being forced to make uncomfortable spending decisions among critical choices like fuel, food, health care, medicines or education on a daily basis, taxing the elasticity of their virtually stagnant wages.
TRAINS: HISTORY OR VISIONARY
The rising cost of transportation and fuel is undeniably a major cost to nearly everyone in Ohio and other states, and is not expected to decrease anytime soon. Although buses operated by transit authorities are experiencing increased riders as commuters and others search for affordable alternatives to cars as their primary mode of transportation, passenger trains, which ruled the country from coast to coast in days gone by, have mostly died out in heartland states like Ohio, where finding an active train station is not an easy task.
In Columbus, the state capital and my home, passenger trains don't stop here anymore as they did between 1850 and 1979, when the architecturally significant train station, Union Station, the third and final train station on the same site, was demolished to make way for a convention center city and business leaders lobbied hard for, thinking trains were the past and convention traffic was the future. What city and business leaders of today might give to have glorious Union Station back is a matter of academic speculation. But passenger rail traffic, which is being talked about more and more as fuel costs make the costs of light rail more desirable, is taking on new significant. What is needed now is the political will to make the investment necessary in resurrecting train traffic in the Buckeye State.
OBAMA ON BOARD WITH HIGH-SPEED PASSENGER TRAINS
Two people who attended Mr. Obama’s talk on energy were Montgomery County Commissioner Debbie Lieberman and State Sen. Tom Roberts, both of whom made comments to the Dayton Daily News about the importance of Obama saying his plan would help fund high-speed trains running between Midwestern cities like Chicago, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Indianapolis and Ohio cities in-between them.
Lieberman noted the economic development aspects that high- speed trains could bring, namely the creation of new jobs that would come through Obama’s plan to invest $15 billion in new sources of energy. Roberts echoed Lieberman’s idea that linking together major Ohio cities like Dayton, Columbus, Cleveland and Cincinnati with passenger trains is an idea long over due.
One of the refreshing, if not novel ideas Strickland broached in March is to push forward with intercity rail plans, which would resurrect passenger rail in the process. His notion, which would become a viable idea under Obama’s funding plan, is to connect Ohio’s three largest metropolitan areas – Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland, also known as the 3-C corridor – with passenger trains.
But while trains have always been associated with train tracks, steel rails also present the costliest form of building a passenger train system. Steel rails guiding steel train wheels are an intensely expensive proposition, as many communities have found out the hard way. The system $25 million light rail system Buffalo, New York, had planned to build eventually cost them $825 million, while the seven-mile line Houston, Texas built cost $500 million. Dallas, San Diego, Detroit and Minneapolis have similar tales to tell. Even Columbus is now actively engaged in a plan being pushed by Mayor Mike Coleman that envisions spending $100 million or more to build only two and one-half miles of grade-level light rail in Downtown. This article about Staten Island and its rail line shows what costs can be today.
NOT ALL TRAINS RUN ON RAILS
But one new idea for passenger trains that only costs a fraction of steel-to-steel rail systems cost can be found in the innovative but existing engineering implementation of an above-grade system of "O-rings" through which pass modern, light-weight passenger cars of 100 feet, powered by electricity that move over rollers at speeds of 150 miles or more.
Robert C. Pulliam, the inventor and founder of Tubular Rail, a start up company based in Houston, Texas, says his small company has a big idea for fast and affordable passenger trains, one maybe not seen since the early 19th century when Robert Fulton raced by travelers on horseback on his steam locomotive. Pulliam says developing rail lines in urban areas is extremely expensive, and that even though light rail is the lowest cost technology, the costs are still monumental, even more so if new right-of-way lines are being proposed.
He says Tubular Rail, the small startup company he started to hold the patent for his futuristic passenger train scheme, has not revolutionized engineering but just reorganized it. “It’s out there,” he said of the engineering principles behind his above-grade plan, adding, “We don’t use new technology, but we have a tremendous cost savings because our system is easier to construct, is ‘impact sensitive’ meaning it’s less disruptive and costs a quarter less” than steel rail systems some cities have built, have plans to build or are still talking about building.
He hopes to bring Tubular Rail to the attention of public and business leaders in Ohio and else where in the near future because he thinks it’s an idea whose time has come, due to what he says is the rising costs associated with cars and the ripening of the willingness Americans to wean themselves off foreign oil through various means, one of which is to invest in alternative forms of transportation, including passenger trains.
It’s long past due when American revisited the function and form of passenger trains. Urban sprawl, land-use planning, redesigning cities for density in making train nodes a good idea is what we need to look at now. The development of the interstate highway system in the 1950s and the love affair Americans have had with their cars has run its course. It’s time we refashion how people move around, in the same way European countries like France and others have made public transportation abundant and affordable so someone can live their life without having to own a car.
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