Deadline Now: Rail Travel
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Deadline Now: Rail Travel

Friday, September 2, 2011

Where is passenger rail transportation headed in Ohio and Michigan? When and how will high speed rail become a viable option in the Great Lakes States?

Ken Prendergast, Executive Director for All Aboard Ohio!, and Timothy Hoeffner, Administrator for Michigan's Office of High Speed Rail and Innovative Project Advancement, are this week's guests.

On the web:
On the web:

Here are Jack Lessenberry's Final Thoughts for this week's edition of Deadline Now:

There are lots of people who have romantic visions of cross-country travel by train. There are others who think commuting by rail would be financially sound and good for the environment as well.

And indeed, it would be.

But there are just a few problems. First, the cost of building and maintaining the system, which would be in figures that sound astronomical. The next problem is related to the first.

Would we really use high speed rail enough to make it worthwhile? Ten years ago, the answer was almost certainly no. We’d gotten used to the speed of travel by air and the convenience of driving, and stopping wherever we want to.

Since then, however, a number of things have happened. Airline travel is no longer especially convenient, or fun. And the cost of gas is making traveling by car more and more difficult.

Plus, driving is often frustrating, stressful and just plain exhausting. You can’t surf the net or read a good book while driving, not without taking your life into your hands.

The governor of Ohio doesn’t believe high speed rail will ever make economic sense for the state. That’s why he rejected federal rapid transit money and canceled the project when he took office earlier this year. He doesn’t think it has a future.

My guess, however, is that any governor of Ohio would have felt much the same way about building roads for automobile travel a century ago. Politicians are rare indeed who can see, much less plan, for the long-term future.

My own feeling, based on a combination of studies, my own prejudices and other factors, is that high-speed rail does make enormous sense. In June, I took a fast train from London, England to Edinburgh, Scotland, and it was marvelous.

I could read, doze, or work on my computer. It was cheaper than air travel without the security nightmare. However, I am less optimistic about so-called local light-rail schemes. They may have made sense when everyone went to work in one location at the same time every day and stayed there.

But for many of us, that is no longer the case, and the train won’t stop at doggie day care. Improved and expanded local bus service may make more sense.  I may be wrong about any particular transportation option. But what I do know is that the present system of everyone going everywhere all the time in a gasoline-burning private car can’t last. If we prepare for the future now, it will be cheaper and less traumatic when it actually arrives.