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Trains Can Provide Options for Commuters
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“I rode from Chicago to New York City on passenger trains. The wife and I in the 50′s we rode the Newark trains to Washington DC.”
Carl Winegartner is a railroad historian from Newark. He has fond memories of his days riding trains and working on them.
“You had to wear a uniform,” Winegartner said. “Your uniform was navy blue and you had to wear a white shirt and a black necktie. They had to both be sparkling clean at all times.”
But that all came to an end.
“June the 21st of 1961: I worked the last passenger train over here,” Winegartner said.
Stu Nicholson is a railroad enthusiast and works for the Ohio Rail Development Commission. He says the demise of passenger rail started long before 1961.
“People came home from WWII and wanted that freedom of the open road,” Nicholson said. “We built this magnificent interstate highway system. We built a huge aviation system.”
There was one other thing.
“Then you had cheap gas,” Nicholson said. “Now you’ve got expensive gas. They’re looking around for options and suddenly it dawns on everybody we don’t have them. If you live in this part of Ohio you have no other option you have to drive.”
And that’s exactly why passenger rail is making a comeback in some parts of the country. In New England, Patricia Quinn works for the Downeaster.
“We kind of call it the people’s train,” Quinn said. “It was a group of advocates that got together to restore passenger rail service to Maine after about a thirty year hiatus.”
Ohio has a grassroots effort of its own All Aboard Ohio. Its primary focus is advancing the Ohio Hub Project a plan endorsed by Governor Strickland, to connect Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati by rail.
Andrew Bremer is the Executive Director of All Aboard Ohio. Right now, he is collecting signatures in support of the Ohio Hub.
“My initial thoughts were to gather as many signatures as I possibly could,” Bremmer said. “And present those signatures that are tied to a specific zip code to our state legislators to show that there is widespread support.”
Patricia Quinn says even with the large amount of public support for the Downeaster, many people were still skeptical.
“It really was a whole cultural shift,” Quinn said. “We don’t have a lot of public transportation here. It’s a pretty rural state. A lot of people didn’t know how to ride the train and weren’t willing to give up their cars.”
Now that gas is four dollars a gallon and higher, Quinn says people are more willing to give the train a try. But she says willingness to ride hinges on one other very important factor: connectivity.
“If people are going to be without their cars, you have to provide an efficient and economical way for them to get to their ultimate destination,” Quinn said. “It’s a constant struggle to make sure there are good transportation connections to get people downtown.”
Stu Nicholson says improving outside connections may be one of the biggest challenges when it comes to passenger rail in Ohio.
“You’re going to see a push for better connections at the local level,” Nicholson said. “You know, it’s great that I can take the train from Cincinnati to Columbus, but when I get to Columbus, then what?”
That means more money for busses and light rail.
“Transportation is always something that involves a heavy dollar investment,” Nicholson said. “A heavy dollar investment is something that requires a heavy political will.”
Political will for passenger rail isn’t lacking in Ohio. Earlier this year, Governor Strickland commissioned a study from Amtrack, to assess Ohio’s railways and what it would take to ready them for passenger trains.
Patricia Quinn says the study is important because rail faces challenges not realized by other modes of transportation.
“Railroad is different from busing because the infrastructure is not publicly owned,” Quinn said. “It’s owned by someone else. You have to make sure you have enough capacity to get the job done reliably. It has to be a negotiation between the host railroad and the operators and everybody needs to come to a reasonable conclusion that what we’ve got there is going to work.”
Mark Magliari is a spokesman for Amtrack.
“We’ll work with the folks that own the tracks the host railroads in this case it’s largely owned by CSX,” Magliari said. “We’ll take a look at the infrastructure and see what it would cost to upgrade that infrastructure to passenger train speeds of 60 to 100 miles per hour.”
“You have to be able to have a benefit there for the freight railroads,” Nicholson said. “They own the corridor. We’re essentially asking to come play in their swimming pool and run passenger trains.”
Nicholson says that expansion will also benefit Ohio’s economy. He says moving more freight means doing more business and ultimately makes the corridor more attractive to potential employers.