Amtrak’s Ohio expansion plans should begin with more Lake Shore Limited departures
As we emerge from the pandemic and reimagine our transportation systems, revitalizing Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited line—from Chicago to New York—can play a key role. Connecting a 950-mile, densely populated corridor with more frequent train service is one of the best tools we have for getting to a better place. Expanding the Lake Shore line can also give Amtrak a headstart on its plans to expand service to most of Ohio’s major and mid-sized cities over the next few years, since the route already serves several of the plan’s target cities.
Amtrak’s current Lake Shore Limited schedule offers one daily departure each way. Dead-of-night arrival and departure times make it mostly useless for business travelers and others who need to take short trips between cities in northern Ohio and western Pennsylvania and New York, or between those cities and Chicago.
But let’s be clear: In cities that have daylight arrival and departure times, the Lake Shore Limited is heavily used for short trips. In 2019, for example, the top city-pair by ridership was Albany to New York (141 miles). The Buffalo to Chicago segment ranked third (528 miles). Those trains arrive at 6:23 PM and 8:46 AM, respectively.
Despite a 3:33 AM arrival time, the Chicago to Cleveland segment ranked sixth. The Chicago to Toledo segment—arriving at 2:55 AM—ranked ninth. So, Amtrak service is valuable enough to some people in those cities to brave the night. Imagine if there were four trains each day, each way, running through Toledo and Cleveland—and two of them, at minimum, ran during daylight hours.
A study shows that daylight trains would increase ridership in Toledo and Cleveland by 300-500 percent. That’s because people overwhelmingly prefer to take on the train when convenient service is available. In the New York to Washington, D.C. corridor, for example, rail has a 70 percent share of the air-rail market. And its run is similar to city-pair distances on the Lake Shore line: For example, Chicago to Toledo (234 miles), Cleveland to Buffalo (192 miles), and Toledo to Erie (202 miles).
Expanded Lake Shore Limited service would have ripple-out effects that benefit towns and cities all along the line. The full corridor—anchored by two global hubs of commerce and culture—is one of America’s most vibrant regions, economically and culturally. Roughly 30 million people live within 25 miles of the route’s 20 rail stations. Frequent, daylight Lake Shore service would boost tourism in towns and cities all along the line; bring families closer together; make business travel more convenient; and support local industry, since many of the domestic manufacturers of rolling stock (and their suppliers) are based in New York and the Midwest.
Three upgrades will be critical. First, the tracks. New passing sidings will need to be constructed, and signals will need to be enhanced. Second, the stations. New platforms serving all mainline tracks—and passenger safety improvements—will need to be installed. Third, state-of-the-art trainsets. Modern trains elevate the passenger experience with amenities like comfortable seats, reliable Wi-Fi, and pleasant workspaces. Their lightweight design also allows them to accelerate quickly, which decreases fuel consumption and shortens trip times.
Collaboration will also be critical. To get this done, Amtrak will need to work with the relevant Class I railroads, CSX and Norfolk Southern, and create incentives for them to invest in faster and more reliable service.