When United Airlines in dramatic fashion walked away from Cleveland and the city’s large investment—from infrastructure to the premium on tickets for “hub” bragging rights—many wondered, are we just the latest to pay the freight for a failing business model?
The larger issue may be, what other option do cities have? What does Cleveland do to shore up its economic position—the city still ranks 111th in GDP among cities worldwide— particularly for business travelers who no longer have United’s extensive regional flights?
Dream or reality?
Many participating in the civic dialogue think the answer lies in better passenger rail. Build a network of high-speed regional rail like Europe’s and the Midwest collectively might backfill the demand that United left on the table, rail experts insist.
“High-speed rail is a game changer,” says Kenneth Sislak, Associate Vice President at AECOM, the largest engineering firm in the world. Sislak is an economist and his focus is public transit systems. “Between Madrid and Sevilla, air travel had dominant market share. They built high speed rail and within three years practically no one was taking planes anymore.”
Advocates know from experience that passenger rail in Ohio is an uphill climb. The campaign to build a rail line connecting Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati was rebuffed by Ohio Governor Kasich when he sent $400 million in federal high speed rail money back.
But, with the airlines struggling, could Ohio have a role in helping its metros pivot to regional high speed rail?
We spoke to passenger rail experts about what it will take to build a modern, high-speed rail network such that a Clevelander could get to Chicago in 2.5 hours.
Depending on your perspective, you might see the estimated $27 billion it would take to connect Cleveland, Toledo, Detroit, Fort Wayne and Chicago with new tracks and trains equipped to speed an estimated 11 million annual passengers at 125 mph as an unattainable dream or powering a low-carbon economy.
That may sound like a lot, says Sislak, until you realize the massive public funding of air travel.
“I don’t think people realize how highly subsidized airlines are,” he says. “Airlines buy airplanes, and, it admittedly costs a lot. But, airports are all built by governments. They get landing fees. But, let’s talk about all the roads to get there. Who pays for TSA? Not the airlines. Same for air traffic control. The pool of pilots—who trains them? Mostly, the Air Force and Navy.”
Moving the switch
Well, then, if Ohio wanted to diversify its investment in transportation, where should it focus its efforts?
“The sweet spot for passenger rail, if you look at the data from Europe and Japan, is in those markets of 500 miles or less,” Sislak says. “The Chicago to Cleveland. It’s an anchor with lots of medium-sized feeder cities.”
“We are blessed in the northern tier of the U.S. because most cities grew up around the canal system then got replaced by railroads,” he adds. “Look at the string of pearls between New York and Chicago: Albany, Rochester, Syracuse, Buffalo, Cleveland, Toledo, Ft. Wayne -- all still strong population centers.”
United Airlines’ pull out of Cleveland underscores the shifting sands of their business model, says Sislak. Cleveland operated as a hub until fuel costs skyrocketed, making 50-passenger regional jets money losers. Killing them frees up capacity for more international flights, the real money makers. But it leaves a lot of people within 500 miles who connect through Cleveland in the lurch.
Passenger trains could fill the void in Cleveland while adding jobs, saving travelers money and time, and reducing our dependence on two of the worst producers of carbon emissions (airplanes and cars), says Rick Harnish, executive director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association.
His group studied the economic impact of a Cleveland to Chicago high speed rail line, and estimated $693 million in benefits for the 9.6 million drivers and 1.2 million flyers. In particular, the 564,054 air travelers between Cleveland and Chicago would save $52.3 million annually from the difference in airfares (averaging $165) compared to a HSR ticket ($72). The study monetizes the time differential between high-speed trains and driving between the two cities at around $58 per trip.
How much of an improvement for the environment is passenger rail versus flying or driving? A study of European rail, and calculations such as Harvard economist Edward Glaeser's estimates that a 240-mile train in Texas would eliminate 113 pounds of carbon dioxide for each passenger per trip, support the premise that trains are the greenest option.
Baby steps or quantum leap?
But, with gridlock in Washington and an anti-transit sentiment in Columbus, how does passenger rail make in-roads?
“There’s this belief that we can’t take a quantum leap,” Harnish, a Cleveland native, says on a call from his office in Chicago. “But if you don’t have this long term vision, the initial steps are so hard.”
The initial steps, Harnish says, are improved “daylight” service for Amtrak between Cleveland and Chicago (and New York), meaning 5:30 a.m. not the current 3 a.m. departure.
It may take a similar effort to Save the Hub—with business leaders and Northeast Ohio’s Congressional delegation “leaning on” Amtrak to improve service, he adds. Business and government leaders might also start negotiating with freight rail carrier Norfolk-Southern for an 80-mph passenger train on a shared track.
Another important step will be rebuilding the rail station in Cleveland, he adds. It follows on what Harnish calls an asset-based approach.
“It’s time for Cleveland leadership to commit to building a true railroad station on the lakefront and connect it to the Mall not through a garage. Celebrate the fact that you have this lakefront and a rail line and passenger trains coming through there.”
Ironically, the airlines may be the biggest supporters of regional rail.
“Low-revenue regional flights cramp air capacity,” says Akshai Singh, recently Northeast Ohio Sierra Club’s Transportation Program Manager. “With sufficient investment in rail transport, not only will we have a lower-carbon option, but one that can alleviate congestion among major airports.”
Fall in to the gap
United’s decision to pull out of regional service to 34 cities directly from Cleveland leaves a void. Airline analysts say it will be partly filled by discount carriers like Jet Blue and Spirit, which have stayed out of the Cleveland market because of United. Cleveland Cliffs CEO this week on WCPN Sound of Ideas said that sounds encouraging, but worried aloud that business will continue to be affected until there’s stability in the regional transportation market.
“Will someone fill the void? Likely,” Sislak says. “It probably should be filled by more trains.”
All Aboard Ohio Executive Director Ken Prendergast agrees with Sislak that rail competes favorably on at least 18 of the routes that United nixed. Particularly, those within 500 miles of Cleveland such as Dayton, Ohio, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Loiusville, Kentucky and Parkersburg, West Virginia.
“While Americans are flying and driving less per capita due to rising costs and declining availability, they are taking buses and trains more. Especially for non-time-sensitive trips under 500 miles,” says Prendergast, adding that Amtrak currently serves only 5 of those 34 markets connecting Cleveland.
Sislak adds that Amtrak is at capacity for its Lakeshore Limited line which pulls 16 coach cars once a day from New York to Chicago (with a stop in Cleveland). He adds that a manufacturing recovery and world-class health care continue to make Cleveland a destination. Amtrak ridership in Cleveland-Elyria increased 16.2% from 1997 to 2012, according to a study by Brookings Institution.
“The pipeline on this northern railroad is pretty full of freight trains. There’s capacity. The freight rail lines don’t want to it give up. Plus it’s difficult to run passenger and freight on the same line.”
Another roadblock is a lack of vision in Ohio which has shunned requests for new passenger rail service. That leaves cities like Cleveland in an awkward position—surrounded by states that are pursuing rail projects
Prendergast suggests that Cleveland throw in with the states and metros in the Great Lakes. Both he and Harnish say that Cleveland can make overtures through its ownership of Hopkins Airport to beef up its regional transportation services.
“Shared, multi-modal passenger facilities combined with joint-ticketing agreements, such as what United does with Amtrak at Newark Liberty Airport, could help create a seamless transportation system between air, rail and bus services,” Prendergast says. “If ODOT continues to ignore our diversifying travel needs, Greater Cleveland's leaders should join with passenger rail development efforts supported by their colleagues in Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Pennsylvania and New York. This is an important decision for Ohio in general and Cleveland in particular if it wishes to remain physically connected and economically relevant.”