Purveyors of Hope

I was going through a pile of clutter and discovered the Fall-Winter 2019-2020 issue of the Ohio Passenger Rail News that I had intended to read months ago but put aside and forgot.

The lead article titled “Ohio looks to get back into rail,” opened with an assertion that the 2010s were a wasted decade for rail passenger service in Ohio.

The state didn’t lose any service but didn’t gain anything new, either. The service it has is far from attractive given the middle of the night arrival and departure times at most stations.

The piece sounded an optimistic note that the Mike DeWine administration might be willing to move forward in ways that the John Kasich administration never did.

That movement, though, is tenuous and comes with a lot of caveats.

ODOT wants to consolidate passenger rail projects described in the state’s rail plan into a single grant application to the Federal Railroad Administration.

These include second station tracks in Cincinnati and Cleveland, a full length boarding platform in Sandusky, and a new station in Oxford to enable service by Amtrak’s Chicago-New York Cardinal.

Any grant request is unlikely to include all of those projects and the state would be seeking a relatively modest $10 million to $20 million.

ODOT isn’t willing to invest millions on infrastructure needs to accommodate new trains to places that lack service now so any new service would be confined to existing Amtrak routes.

State transportation officials told Amtrak during a meeting last year they want in return for their investment more convenient service and more frequency of service.

Amtrak wants those things, too, but is unwilling to change the schedules of its existing service to accommodate Ohio if that means breaking connections in Chicago.

Like so many articles I’ve read in this newsletter over the years there was a discussion of prospective expanded intercity rail service, including increasing the frequency of operation of the Chicago-New York Cardinal from tri-weekly to five days a week, launching a Cleveland-Chicago train with a schedule favorable to Ohio, and starting a train linking Detroit and Pittsburgh via Cleveland.

Funding for the new services would come from a federal grant program that would pay operating costs for three years. Beyond that Ohio could “partner” with adjacent states to share the costs of those trains.

All of these ideas sound good on paper because they are plausible. But will any of them happen?

All Ohio rail passenger advocates can do is hope.

There are only a handful of people willing to dedicate their lives to the cause of rail passenger service and persevere in the face of repeated rejection and indifference from public officials who control the spending of public funds.

There is little doubt that passenger service doesn’t happen without public funding.

Public funding doesn’t happen without a viable political constituency to push for it. Viable political constituencies don’t develop without members having hope that their efforts are going to result in something.

What was not discussed in the newsletter is how large of a constituency is needed to achieve political movement and how far Ohio rail passengers advocates are from that.

Also generally avoided is a frank discussion of the enormity of the obstacles that need to be overcome.

To do that might prove to be too discouraging. Instead, readers get hopeful proposals that neither Amtrak nor the state have shown much, if any, interest in pursuing.

So long as there is reasonable hope maybe the troops will continue to fight for the cause.

It may also be that those who write these articles are trying to bolster their own spirits as much as they are those of their followers.

Leaders and followers alike have been wandering a barren landscape for more than a decade and have little to show for it. At best they have been offered an occasional glass of lemonade when what they really wanted was a full meal.

So they create ideas and foster hope about what might be possible. Hope, it would seem, is all they have to offer.

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