By Steve Croyle
TOPIC: Rail in Columbus
Let’s talk about tracks, baby
Columbus doesn’t love trains nearly as much as a very small segment of the population would have you believe. If Columbus really wanted rail, we’d have it. City leaders would be working with the other municipalities in the Mid Ohio Region to stimulate density in development areas that could be better served by rail, but that’s not happening. This region continues to grow around the assumption that people drive. It’s a fair and true assumption. The vast majority of the people who live in this region prefer to drive, even if public transportation is an option.
Most of the people who advocate for trains embody precisely why rail will never work in a city like Columbus. The rail they want is prolific– a network of clean, technologically advanced rail cars that would pulse around the city like mechanized blood vessels. Unfortunately, their vision is usually short sighted. They don’t take into account the cost of building, operating and maintaining rail lines, and they also don’t stop to consider just how dated the concept is.
It’s ironic that among these advocates, many are part of that ‘creative’ segment of the workforce where schedules are flexible and workplaces are on the move. While they whine that Columbus is behind the times on mass transit, they live a lifestyle that makes rail obsolete.
Rail is fixed in two very fundamental and unavoidable ways. With more and more people working flexible schedules that include plenty of hours logged at home, commuter rail service around the word is experiencing a lull in usage. Rail works when everybody is working that classic 9 to 5 schedule. You get up every morning to the alarm clock’s warning, and take the 8:15 into the city.
But nobody works 9-5 these days. Most people start work at 8 am, and they don’t leave the office until well after 5. Moreover, you don’t always know when you’re going to get stuck in the office for an extra 3 hours, and if the train schedule changes after 6pm to something less frequent, you could spend an hour just waiting for that train home. Of course, “home” in this context is probably another 20 or 30 minutes from the train station you started on. Fun!
Columbus has another massive problem with regard to commuter rail, and that’s regional development. There is very little consideration given to mass transit when developers build houses, apartments, or offices. In some instances, retail developers will intentionally build where there is no mass transit in hopes of excluding the demographic that might take a bus to a certain shopping destination.
These are realities that COTA has faced for years. It’s difficult enough to serve the city’s busing needs. At least you can change bus routes up every so often to serve an evolving population’s needs, with rail those routes as permanent as they are expensive.
Light Rail just isn’t feasible these days. With people working so many different schedules, less is more. Less, seats, that is. The future of transportation seems to point to a fleet of smaller, automatically driven vehicles, and a fluid transit map that features flexible options. Blending ride share and mass transit concepts into an automated fleet of smaller vehicles that respond instantly to demand is the future of mass transit in a metropolitan area. It’s cheaper than rail, agile, and instantly scalable.
Of course, that’s just one aspect of rail. The other ridiculous transportation demand is a high speed rail connection between Columbus and Chicago. We keep reading about how the next step is being taken, but so far all of these steps are merely people spending money to study the feasibility of the project. Do you want to save half a million bucks? It’s not feasible.
Before your angry fingers fire off a cannabis-fueled rant in the comments section, answer this: How many people are traveling from Columbus to Chicago on a daily basis? Is it enough to fill one car on a train?
If we subsidize a high speed rail line between Columbus and Chicago, would we create a market sufficient to fill one car every day?
Now, answer this: How many Chicagoans are champing at the bit to travel to Columbus on the regular? 3? 4?
We talk about this transit corridor like there’s huge demand, but that’s not true at all. We have a handful of people who fancy going to Chicago once every so often because it’s a toddling fricking town, but there’s not enough demand to sustain a high speed rail connection between Columbus and Chicago. Fort Wayne and Lima being points on the way don’t sweeten the deal in the least.
Ironically, the people most excited about this rail service will ultimately be the ones who complain about it. The majority are people who don’t own cars because they’ve spent $15,000 on tattoos over the last four years. They claim that cars are dirty, and unnecessary, but yet they’re always on social media begging for a ride to Pittsburgh.
Of course they like the notion of a train to Chicago, but are they actually going to buy tickets? A round trip high speed train ride to Chicago is going to set you back at least $100. That’s a fair price, but definitely not cheap. Especially if you wanted to get that sleeve touched up.
And it’s still going to take four hours to get there. That train isn’t going direct. It’s stopping at a few points along the way. Current estimates have the ride clocking in at 3 hours and 45 minutes. Once reality sets in, you can easily add 30 minutes to that figure, and it’s unlikely the train will ever make that kind of time. In reality, that train ride is going to be a lot closer to 5 hours, and that’s the high speed version. Pipe dream, anybody?
If you like pipe dreams, let’s talk about Elon Musk’s Hyperloop. Columbus is an alleged finalist for this extremely expensive boondoggle. Musk claims that a trip between Chicago and Columbus would take about 29 minutes, and a trip from Columbus to Pittsburgh would be just a 15 minute jaunt. Moreover, Musk claims that a ticket on his electromagnetic bullet bus would be about 20 bucks.
That’s exciting, and practical. 30 minutes to Chicago for 20 bucks? That’s in everybody’s budget. This Hyperloop thing isn’t just going to replace trains, it’s going to make planes obsolete. Stupid Wright Brothers.
Of course that’s where reality sets in. Musk’s Hyperloop is hyper expensive. Musk hasn’t been extremely forthcoming on this cost, but admits that it’s in the 80 to 100 million dollars per mile range. Since the hyperloop would have to be built entirely from scratch, transportation experts and engineers expect it to be a hell of a lot more expensive. You can almost hear the cast of The Simpsons singing “Monorail”, can’t you?
Nobody should ever underestimate the power of technology, or dismiss a brilliant idea just because it sounds difficult. If Musk’s Hyperloop lives up to the hype, it would be worthwhile to start building it, but we need to be realistic. If ground were to break today, it would be a minimum of 25 years before this thing was ready for passengers, and that’s assuming everything goes off without a hitch. Given Musk’s track record for hitting projected release dates, is that an assumption you’re going to bank on?
And don’t count on Columbus making the cut. The attraction here is cheap land between Columbus and Chicago, but the downside is the number of butts that would eventually be in the seats traveling between the two cities. Musk can’t afford to convince government officials to bankroll a hyperloop only to have it ferrying a few hundred people a week. He needs to make a big splash, which is why hyperloop is far more likely to debut somewhere with heavy rail traffic.
If it debuts at all. Hyperloop will put a lot of people out of business. Do you think the airlines aren’t going to spend billions lobbying to shut it down? So will oil companies, auto manufacturers, and everybody involved in highway construction. The Hyperloop sounds great, but I have a feeling we’re more likely to be talking about where Elon Musk’s body is buried in 30 years than we are to be riding hyperloops.
Columbus needs to embrace a mass transit future that includes affordable options that suit our everyday needs. It’s nice to have dreams, but you have to crawl before you can walk. Settle down, Columbus. You’ve got some work to do.
QUICK TAKE I
Fix the CPD
Topic: Police brutality
Kim Jacobs is in a tough spot. She’s the Chief of the Columbus Police Department at a time when police departments everywhere are under fire. That’s not to say that Zach “Facestomper” Rosen, and Joe “Choke Boner” Bogard are issues being blown out of proportion in today’s social climate. It’s embarrassing to share a city with jerks like these, but it’s frightening that they passed whatever screening process is in place to prevent homicidal lunatics from becoming cops. More frightening is the fact that the officers who witnessed the behavior of Rosen and Bogard just shrugged it off like it was normal. We keep hearing about good cops, but why don’t we ever see a good cop tackling steroid-addled losers like Rosen, or telling a jackass like Bogard to shut his yap? Instead we see a lot of complicit behavior. Citizens can be charged with a crime for failing to step up and help other citizens.
If a citizen can be charged with a crime for not doing the right thing, shouldn’t cops be held to that standard?
Jacobs isn’t the problem. She was just the next cop in line when a chief was needed. She isn’t responsible for the culture that keeps derelicts like Rosen and Bogard on the streets. Firing Jacobs might appease some angry citizens in the short term, but Columbus needs to overhaul the entire process of recruiting, training, and evaluating police officers. The city also needs to establish a different relationship with the Fraternal Order of Police. If the FOP is going to continue to turn a blind eye to such blatant abuses, and defend cops who are a clear danger to the public they serve, the FOP doesn’t deserve a seat at the negotiating table in this city.
Fire Jacobs if you want to make a statement. Fire the FOP if you want to make a change.
QUICK TAKE II
Rattling a foam saber
Topic: North Korea
Trump’s address to the UN wasn’t as disastrous as it could have been. That’s pretty much like Saying Hurricane Irma could have been a little stronger as it made landfall in Florida. While extricating anything of value from his speech is a bit like mining dog poop for an engagement ring that Fido swallowed, Trump did touch on some valid points.
The UN does need to take a much firmer stand regarding North Korea. Trump doesn’t need to make America look bad in calling Kim Jong Un “Rocket Man”, but the UN needs to make it abundantly clear than any country seeking to assist Kim Jong Un’s regime will also be subject to the same sanctions imposed on North Korea. The US shouldn’t have to run point on this, despite our military presence being maintained on the border, this is an international concern.
What was uncalled for is the harsh condemnation of Iran and the brazen criticism of the nuclear energy deal the Obama Administration put together. There’s always an opportunity to go back to the table a renegotiate certain aspects of an agreement, but Trump slammed the door on any diplomatic opportunities with his bombastic condemnation of Iran, which came on the heels of his comments about North Korea.
Iran might be a problematic country, but it’s nothing like North Korea. Iran has economic clout, and a stockpile of natural resources. The Obama administration was forced to negotiate a deal with Iran largely because the rest of the world was growing weary of honoring US sanctions. Iran is a very desireable trading partner for Russia, China, Brazil, and India, all of which were suspected of undermining sanctions in the first place.
It’s hard to tell what the UN really made of Trump’s address, but for all his tough talk, Trump’s presidency is showing the world that our President doesn’t wield that much power. That’s going to make things very difficult for the US in the years to follow.