Trains running on Ohio's planned passenger rail project are capable of completing the entire Cleveland-to-Cincinnati route in just over 5 hours, about 90 minutes faster than a previous estimate, state transportation officials said Friday.
The new schedule is based on a more detailed computer analysis of train performance on the 255-mile route and would make the service more competitive with driving, said Scott Varner, an Ohio Department of Transportation spokesman.
The faster schedule also has potential to increase ridership, which was previously estimated at 478,000 a year, but no new estimates have been completed.
More ticket sales could also reduce the size of the state's annual operating subsidy, projected at $17 million - less than 1 percent of the roughly $3 billion that the Transportation Department spends each year.
President Barack Obama in January awarded Ohio $400 million in stimulus money for a startup rail service connecting Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton and Cincinnati with trains reaching 79 mph by late 2012 or 2013. It is one of 13 stimulus-funded passenger rail projects in the U.S.
Also Friday, Ohio received permission from the Federal Rail Administration to spend the first $15 million in stimulus funds, Varner said. The money will help Ohio hire outside consultants to identify specifications for train equipment, complete environmental studies and select an operator, possibly Amtrak.
Amtrak, crediting an improving economy and high fuel prices, is on pace for record ridership this year, carrying a best-ever 13.6 million passengers in the first half of fiscal year 2010.
Ohio's new, faster train schedule includes three daily roundtrips with departures and arrivals in the morning, afternoon and evening.
The analysis, completed by Woodside Consulting Group Inc. of Palo Alto, Calif., updates a preliminary schedule released by Amtrak in 2009 showing a total run time from Cleveland to Cincinnati of 6 1/2 hours.
The trip is now estimated at 5 hours and 14 minutes. Going the other way - Cincinnati to Cleveland - is slightly faster at 5 hours and 11 minutes.
The schedule includes boarding time at eight stations and translates into an average speed of about 50 mph for the entire route, Varner said. The Cleveland-to-Columbus segment, which figures to have the most ridership, can be completed in 2 hours and 21 minutes for an average speed of about 60 mph.
The state will examine special game-day trains to coincide with major sporting events, such as Ohio State football games, Varner said.
Varner cautioned that the new schedule will likely change again based on further engineering.
Also, officials have yet to determine a location for a Cincinnati station, and the state must finish negotiating access with Norfolk Southern Corp. and CSX Corp., two freight railroad companies that own most of the rail lines on the route. The companies have said they support the project as long as passenger and freight operations don't conflict.
Republican gubernatorial candidate John Kasich has used the previous train schedule and its slower travel times to attack the rail project, which he has vowed to cancel if elected in November.
Kasich remains opposed to the project, spokesman Rob Nichols said Friday. The campaign questions the validity of the new schedule, which, even if accurate, is no faster than passenger trains that ran in Ohio in 1935, he said.
The campaign produced a copy of a 1935 New York Central Railroad timetable that shows a train completing the Cleveland-Cincinnati trip in just over 5 hours, but such a comparison can also make the 2010 plan look more efficient.
The contemporary plan has more station stops and calls for trains to navigate through heavier freight traffic than existed in 1935.
Kasich is ahead in the polls against Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland, who has billed the rail project as a jobs creator that will lay the foundation for a higher-speed service that will eventually connect Ohio to train hubs in Chicago and the East Coast.
Governors who reject the stimulus money will see it reallocated to rail projects in other states, according to the Federal Rail Administration.
Rail advocates called Ohio's updated schedule a marked improvement and a first step toward rebuilding a passenger rail system that was abandoned in the mid-20th century in favor of government subsidies for highways and airports.
"Not only do we have a lot of catching up to do with our competitors around the world, but with our own past," said Ken Prendergast, executive director of All Aboard Ohio.
About 6 million people live along the Cleveland-to-Cincinnati corridor, making it one of the most heavily populated corridors without rail service in the Midwest. Private train service on the corridor ended in 1971.