What is the future of transportation? Ohio looks overseas for answers


EDITOR’S NOTE: Reporter Kara Driscoll was chosen for the Arthur F. Burns Fellowship in Germany. The fellows work for two months in a host media organization of their choice, learning about news operations in a foreign setting and, in effect, serving as foreign correspondents. Driscoll will be reporting on topics that have an impact on Germany and the Dayton region. Email kara.driscoll@coxinc.com with story ideas and questions.

As large companies like Amazon flirt with the idea of making major investments in the Midwest, transportation experts say the region will have to invest in a high-speed rail system or another transportation concept if states like Ohio want to remain competitive in a changing economy.

Dayton, Columbus, Cincinnati and other Ohio cities have been included as potential stops for a Hyperloop route in the Midwest, but some high-speed rail experts think other options are more viable for the region. Rick Harnish, executive director at Midwest High Speed Rail Association, said a high-speed rail system in the Midwest could keep the region relevant — connecting smaller cities like Dayton to places like Chicago and Indianapolis within minutes.

“I know that it’s something we really need to do if we want to remain competitive. It’s a matter of putting together the right kind of value proposition and making it happen,” he said.

» CONTINUED COVERAGE: Could Dayton see a hyperloop stop? City included in feasibility study

Most successful high-speed rail systems around the world are built using the Phased Network Approach, integrating new high-speed tracks with the existing rail network, according to MHSRA. High-speed rail is a system that serves many destinations, both large and small, by adding new segments of high-speed track to existing railroad n

etwork in Midwestern states.

“It cuts everybody’s cost of travel dramatically,” Harnish said. “More importantly, we continue to see smaller cities being out as people move toward the suburban sprawl areas and even moving to downtown areas again. With this, you’d be able to have people stay in place, which means they can put down much stronger roots.”

“We thought about this more like the interstate highway system, where we added 50-mile, 100-mile segments of high-speed highway to existing networks — that way you could serve a lot more people with one investment,” he said.

» WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: Chicago in minutes? Columbus named as finalist for Hyperloop

If high-speed rail systems are the future of effective transportation, Ohio can learn something from systems across the country and even overseas. Harnish said the region can look to new projects in Europe as an example of effective travel systems, including Germany’s Deutsche Bahn.

“The key to their system is that they have a comprehensive, country-wide network that runs on either hourly or twice-hourly service,” he said. “All of the trains show up in the station at the same time, and so you can easily get from anywhere in the country to anywhere else… it’s all very interconnected, the system works in a very cohesive way. Sometimes the trains are only going 80 miles per hour, sometimes they’re on 150-mile-per-hour tracks, and sometimes they’re on 200-mile-per-hour tracks. But because they’ve got a very reliable hourly service… it makes the service very convenient,” he said.

A new high-speed rail connection between Munich and Berlin was added in December, seeing a surge of customers because of the route, Deutsche Bahn officials announced last month. Birgit Bohle, head of long-distance travel for the German National Railway Company, said the connection has been a “remarkable success.”

» RELATED: Country’s first private high-speed rail starts simulated service

Deutsche Bahn is selling around 15,000 tickets currently per day for the connection.

Developing a comprehensive high-speed intercity passenger rail network would require a long-term commitment at both the federal and state levels in the United States, according to a previous study by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

High-speed rail systems are costly. A new California high-speed rail could cost more than $77 billion, according to a California High Speed Rail Authority draft business plan released in March. The bullet train, which was approved by California voters in 2008, will eventually connect San Francisco’s Transbay Transit Terminal to L.A.’s Union Station.

“When a state or several Midwestern states submit a transportation bill, it’s probably a 10-year project from the date they submit the bill,” Harnish said. “The first step is a state or states need to create a comprehensive transit plan. So instead of looking at high-speed rail as something completely separate, look at it as part of creating a state-wide transit plan, where the local buses and trains and even rural buses connect to the high-speed line. It would be a mix of private investment and public investment. Even local communities will need to get involved in upgrading their stations,” he said.

Other high-speed transportation enthusiasts think the future is Hyperloop. Some critics say the primary cost of building Hyperloop infrastructure is not feasible, but several regional committees are looking into the idea.

The Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency plans to fund up to half of a $1.2 million feasibility study for the hyperloop project. The hyperloop route would connect Cleveland and Chicago, allowing travelers to get between cities in just 28 minutes. NOACA would share the cost of the feasibility study with Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, the private company that wants to build a hyperloop system throughout the region.

“Regulations are the ultimate barrier for Hyperloop implementation, and we are excited to build the first real public-private partnership to bring Hyperloop travel to the US,” said Dirk Ahlborn, CEO of HTT. “With this agreement, we welcome innovative and industry-leading partners in both government and industry to our movement.”

A map showed possible routes for the Hyperloop Transportation Technologies system includes Phase 1: Cleveland to Chicago, with secondary stops in Sandusky and Toledo. Phase 2 includes stops in Cincinnati, Dayton, Detroit, Toronto, Buffalo, Cleveland, Akron, Youngstown, Pittsburgh, Columbus, Indianapolis, Milwaukee and Madison.

Hyperloop Transportation Technologies is different from Hyperloop One, which announced Columbus was one of 10 international finalists to house its transportation system. In June, Ohio transportation officials announced that Virgin Hyperloop One’s technology will be included in a federally-required Environmental Impact Study, marking the first time hyperloop will be considered as a transportation mode in such a process.

The Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission (MORPC) announced that this step will be taken as part of its Rapid-Speed Transportation Initiative (RSTI), which will include both a feasibility and environmental impact studies (EIS) to explore intercity routes that could utilize two rapid-speed transportation technology options – traditional passenger rail or Virgin Hyperloop One technology - between Chicago, Columbus, and Pittsburgh.

“We are excited to collaborate with these world-class public and private sector partners to connect the Midwest with rapid speed transport that will fuel future economic activity,” said Virgin Hyperloop One CEO Rob Lloyd.

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