Officials Begin To Prepare For High-Speed Trains

By PAUL SINGER, Associated Press Writer

CLEVELAND (AP) - State transportation officials are drafting a plan to upgrade Ohio rail lines, with the ultimate goal of making it possible to bring high-speed passenger trains through the state.

Led by the Ohio Rail Development Commission, state and regional rail officials met Wednesday to start rewriting the state transportation plan, which governs the expenditure of all federal transportation money in the state.

James Seney, executive director of the rail commission, said rail upgrades are already underway in Pennsylvania, New York and Illinois. He said Ohio needs the upgrades to ensure Cleveland will remain a rail hub for passenger traffic.

"The strategy and the problem is that Chicago is here, New York is there, and they are coming through Ohio. Are they just going to keep right on going, or are they going to stop?" Seney said. "We have to make sure that we're in the game, so we can put the crossroads in Cleveland."

Seney said part of the plan, which will take about a year to assemble, will focus on rail upgrades needed to make a national high-speed rail system possible. But he said there will also be intermediate steps that Ohio can take on its own to cut down travel time on existing rail lines through the state.

The 340-mile train trip from Cleveland to Chicago currently takes about seven hours, with trains averaging less than 50 mph. Seney said minor track improvements along the state's northern corridor could raise train speed to 70 mph and cut the trip down to five hours, even without moving to high-speed rail.

High-speed trains travel at up to 150 mph. Amtrak launched the first high-speed passenger rail service from New York to Washington in October 2000.

The Midwest Regional Rail Initiative issued a report in 2000 suggesting it would cost $4.1 billion to build a 10-state high-speed rail system reaching from Cleveland to Omaha, Neb., with Chicago as the hub.

Amtrak spokesman Kevin Johnson said Congress will discuss high-speed rail this year as part of a broader discussion on how to improve passenger rail service nationwide. Amtrak is participating in the development of Ohio's new rail plan.

With air travel slowed by security enhancements in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, people are finding different ways to travel, Seney said.

"We want to be positioned to move with whatever that adjustment is," he said.

The Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency, which directs federal transportation spending in the area, is also working with the rail commission on the new rail plan.

"The public loves to take the train. We just need more opportunities to do it," said Howard Maier, NOACA's director.

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)