What’s Holding Back A Better Rail System?

by Handsome Matt

I live in Columbus, Ohio. Every few years there is a move on the ballots to build a light rail system here. It always gets voted down. For one reason or another, it never seems to pass.

Every year I wonder why that is.

If we sit down and consider how to execute an effective mass transit system, a few points emerge.

1) It has to be pleasant. Buses are scary, bumpy, and inconvenient. Not to sound elitist, but they are the domain of the poor. And I can’t help but wonder and hope that the last person who sat in my seat had showered. I also wonder sometimes if I’m going to be mugged at the bus stop, or if someone is going to expose themselves.

2) It has to address the needs of the citizens. Here in Columbus, it’s faster, cheaper, easier, and more environmentally friendly to drive. Certain bus routes take 2 hours, multiple stops, and require walking between stops. Whole tracts of the city are forced to drive because there’s no good route.

3) It has to be fast. Right now, a person can get to most places in Columbus in under thirty minutes depending on traffic. On a transit system, I should be able to get almost anywhere in the city in that same amount of time. Otherwise, why shouldn’t I drive. Time is money, and if my time is wasted on a bus or rail line, then why not drive?

4) It needs to be flexible. It should be built in such a way as to accommodate the peaks and valleys of traffic demand.

Here’s the good news though: If we adapt existing roads and highways, we can build an effective system relatively inexpensively. These are already dedicated traffic corridors that could be easily adapted for use by an elevated rail system.

Yes, I said elevated.

For Columbus and most of Ohio, I think an elevated system is the way to go. It would be easier to build than a subway system, would require less infrastructure investment, commuters and citizens can become watchdogs (reporting safety concerns and issues) of the system and rails, it helps negate vandalism by being out of reach, trains can run faster, and it could eventually be adapted to run a bullet train system.

By engineering an elevated system to work within the confines of our current road system, we would lose one lane of roadway, but gain up to 8 times of capacity.

We would be able to use our highways, connect the rails from their to main arteries and stations, thus connecting the suburbs with their destination hubs. Malls, large business areas, entertainment destinations, and our sports venues would all have to be included as stations.

Furthermore, jobs would be created. Both blue collar, in the forms of construction, maintenance and operations, AND white collar in the form of administration and operations. That was the selling point for Ohio to vote yes on casinos. It would be a strong political point for a light rail system.

And if we add in certain extras and features, it would be more appealing and productive to use a light rail than to drive. For example, if there was a business class for commuters. During rush hour times, business class riders would be able to access cars with secure wireless internet, better seating including tables, and even outlets to charge electronic devices. Even if it takes longer, for whatever reason, to get into work, a person wouldn’t lose productivity. It would be the ultimate telecommute.

Furthermore, if the stations were treated as destinations in and of themselves it would add to the pleasantries. Instead of pathetic shacks, why not enclose them, add heat and a coffee shop or cafe. Lease the space out to businesses and restaurants. Then I’d be able to get my coffee, bagel, and paper while waiting for the train. Instead of freezing my ass off.

By making it faster and nicer, we could make choosing public transit the better of two choices. And it would make the morning and evening commute simpler and less stressful.

Even if we only secured 5 to 10% of commuters in Columbus to start, that’s still a sizable number (14,000 to 30,000 according to the 2000 US Census) . Furthermore, if the experience is pleasant and productive, that number could grow from there. I’m not an over-optimistic person, a mass transit system will never replace driving due to city layout and planning, but if a sizable portion of commuter traffic could be diverted towards mass transit, the environmental savings and the money generated by the system would be great.

Furthermore, if we built it with the long term in mind, we could integrate it into the larger rail network.

Rails helped us conquer the Frontier and settle most of America, it fueled the Industrial Revolution and helped forge us into one nation.

Check it yourself:

The Ohio Hub: A proposal to link Columbus into the high speed rail network

Light Rail Pros and Cons: A wikipedia article dealing with light rail transit

Light Rail: Forms of light rail transportation

Columbus Oh Census Data : Page three has the information on commuting.