OPINION: Ohio doesn’t just want passenger rail, it NEEDS it

Logan Heffelman Opinion Writer

The first railroad line in Ohio was completed in 1836 and eventually connected Toledo, Ohio, with Adrian, Michigan. At the time the 33-mile journey took three hours to make. The modern Shinkansen (bullet train) in Japan travels at over 200 mph — making that same journey today would take around nine minutes.

The high-speed railway lines of Japan are at the pinnacle of passenger rail and while comparing these engineering marvels to what modern Ohio currently operates is not in the same ballpark, let alone in the same league. It is curious to think that as other countries such as Japan have profited massively off their integrated transport system, why has Ohio not seemed to take the hint?

Would it be fair to compare Ohio to the U.K. in regards to passenger rail? How about that of Italy?

Ohio has been historically an agricultural powerhouse with relatively flat lands — one would think this would make it easy to integrate high-speed rail across one of the most populous states. Between the three Cs of Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati, there exists a scatter of small towns and land with an ever-expanding suburbanization thanks to more affordable lands further from the city, cultural acceptance of longer commutes and integrated necessity of the private car.

But as with nearly any type of system, for a state to rely solely on one form of transit is not only irresponsible, it is careless. Other than flying, which does not exist anymore for cities within the state on a commercial level, driving a car is the only viable transportation solution.   

I am sure I am not the only person who has made the little over two-hour drive from Kent to Columbus for work or to visit. To get to the main highway, you have to drive through the suburbs, hop on a freeway, drive through an Akron by-pass (which somehow has been under construction for the past 40 years) and fight the mix of leisurely stroller running errands to angsty business people rushing home from work.

Driving is stressful — we as humans have to take in an enormous amount of constantly changing information from lights and lanes and be aware of other drivers around us. And then add changing weather patterns, construction and addicting mobile devices that seemingly everybody is illegally using while driving.

How much of ease would it be to perhaps drive to a station maybe 15 minutes away, park your car and hop on a train? That same two hours focusing on driving, one could relax — perhaps even work on some projects or read while the train transports 50 times more people than in the same space of car?

To err is human, so how many possible accidents can we avoid by integrating passenger rail between cities? I wonder what kind of climate effects it would have to take let’s say a hundred cars off the road every day in place of one passenger railcar. I remember once reading an article about urban transportation trends, and the past decade in particular people are becoming more and more accustomed to longer commutes. There was one person who won “America’s Longest Commute” award for her nearly seven-hour commute each day from northern California to San Jose, California.

Imagine the amount of time lost, how much of a percentage of her life is strictly sitting in a car driving? If when we die our life flashes before our eyes, would she only ever see the dashboard?

I have been fortunate and appreciative of the opportunities I have had in my life. I remember visiting family in London for the first time a few years ago and the moment I landed at Gatwick Airport I was amazed at just the subtle differences in both infrastructure and transportation. Trains rule the transportation sector, nearly every person has an oyster card (like NYC’s metro card) that with just a tap gives you entry to the underground, aboveground and national rail line. Being able to walk down below the surface of the earth, experiencing such an engineering feat while also being able to go from one end of a major metropolitan area to another in less than 10 minutes blew my mind.

Coming up from the underground into the station then stepping outside to a completely new environment kept me inspired and energized. I was so happy to explore and try new things; I never had to worry about getting into a car, driving and fighting traffic, searching for parking. It was, to say the least, EASY.

America loves easy. Evident by the self-cleaning litterboxes for cats, robotic vacuum cleaners, apps that automate our subscriptions and pay them. We want convenience, yet our actions show the opposite with transportation. Sure, we have the freedom (in a sense) to get into a car and drive to where we want, but is this actually freedom and is it actually convenient?

What if the place you are going to does not have parking? You get frustrated and leave. What if your car breaks down and you can’t get to work? I’ve been let go of a job because my car got a flat tire on my way to work and I had to change it before going in (unreasonable if you ask me). I can’t mention how many times I would have loved to just hop on a train to visit friends for a week to celebrate their birthday because my car was in the shop.

In London, I never had to worry about such things. I lived in Italy for a bit; I could explore the historic city of Siena and take an hour-long ride for $20 to Rome and go to a bar the same day!

It is a cultural difference and political intervention that has prevented Ohio from utilizing its ability to THRIVE with passenger rail and is even the reason why Ohio has been passed up from some economic development. We don’t have to copy other countries in what they are doing and how they integrate, but we should most definitely be aware and understanding the historical context of transportation modes and their contributions. With Amtrak proposing these new routes to be offered, this is a great first step. It will be nowhere near the speed of the Japanese bullet train, it may not be as beautiful as a train ride through northern Italy or the Swiss Alps and it may not be an engineering masterpiece as the London Underground but hey, it’s a start.

Logan Heffelman is an opinion writer. Contact him at [email protected].