The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, perched on the shore of Lake Erie, is regularly cited as one of the nation’s best museums. It draws 500,000 visitors each year, and its annual impact on Cleveland is around $200 million. Love it or hate it, it’s a pillar of the city’s economy, especially the tourism sector. About 80 percent of visitors come from outside the Cleveland area.
But here’s a weird fact about the Rock Hall.
Getting from Cleveland’s Amtrak station to the museum couldn’t be much easier, since the two sit almost side by side. Yet it’s virtually impossible to get to the Rock Hall by train.
That’s because just four trains serve Cleveland each day—two Lake Shore Limited and two Capitol Limited runs. And they all arrive in the middle of the night. Which means that the roughly 70 million people who live within 350 miles of the Cleveland metro area, and would love an easy affordable way to the Rock Hall, are out of luck.
Why does this bare-bones service matter, aside from the fact that trains are safer than driving, more affordable than flying, and faster (plus vastly better for the environment) than both?
One answer is that giving millions of people an easy way to your most famous museum is a no-brainer. And good train service would juice attendance at all kinds of other local attractions and events. The Browns’ football stadium is right next to the Rock Hall, for example. So is the Great Lakes Science Center. And the Children’s Museum is just a few miles away. As are the Cleveland Museum of Art and the home of the famous Cleveland Orchestra. And so on.
But in truth, tourism isn’t what good train service is mainly about.
It’s about making Cleveland an all-around better city to work, play and build a business in. Because that’s what trains do. They create the kind of cities that people want to put down roots. Communities that work. Places full of more creativity and more life. Cities where people want to be, not just for a day trip or a long weekend but for the long haul.
Which is to say: Trains deliver the goods. How so?
A strong core
Fitness gurus often talk about the importance of core strength. We’re healthier, more mobile, and more resilient overall when we have a strong core.
The same is true of cities.
A strong city core means having a good mix of residents, businesses, and nonprofits. It means offering easy and affordable ways to get around. Most importantly, it means that a city’s design and infrastructure work to bring people together instead of pulling them apart.
Cleveland has incredible potential to build a strong core. Diversity truly is its strength. For example: the waterfront location isn’t just a big asset beauty-wise. Cleveland is the third largest port in the Great Lakes region, handling about 13 million tons of cargo each year.
And, although many people still think of its industrial past (and the impact of de-industrialization) when they think of Cleveland, it’s a major player in the healthcare and education sectors. Consider its “health-tech corridor,” for example, which stretches east from downtown to the University Circle neighborhood. It’s home to several of the city’s pillar institutions, including Cleveland State University, a public university serving about 16,000 students; Case Western Reserve University, a prestigious private university with several Nobel laureates on the faculty; Cleveland Clinic, a world-renowned hospital serving more than 3 million people from around the world each year; and University Hospitals, the largest biomedical research center in Ohio.
The Cleveland Clinic alone contributed nearly $22 billion to Ohio’s economy in 2019, generating nearly $2 billion in state and local taxes. (Ohio’s total GDP is about $640 billion.) Cleveland Clinic is also the state’s largest employer, and it’s part of a pioneering movement that pushes for healthcare systems to be transformative, community-building forces by buying and investing locally.
So, all the pieces are in place for Cleveland to be a world-class health-tech hub. And Cleveland has the kind of strategic location that most cities can only dream of. It’s the midpoint of an east-west corridor that stretches from Chicago to New York, and it’s the apex of an urban triangle that’s anchored by Pittsburgh and Columbus. Collectively, these corridors are home to some of the nation’s most innovative institutions, including many in the education and health-tech sectors.
They offer prime opportunities for collaborations and partnerships—in sectors where cross-institutional collaboration is especially fruitful and valuable. Yet the current transportation paradigm undercuts that possibility. Most of Cleveland’s regional neighbors, after all, are too close for a flight to make sense—but too far away for an easy drive.
With true high-speed rail service, they could be a short, pleasant train ride away: 80 minutes to Detroit; 90 minutes to Buffalo; and about an hour to Pittsburgh and Columbus. Even high-quality conventional trains could easily beat flight times, factoring in security check and wait times at airports. And all trains—high-speed or conventional—boost productivity by giving riders a comfortable space where they can work, rest, or socialize instead of fighting traffic.
In short: Fast, frequent train service will make regional collaborations much easier. Which will create a stronger health-tech sector in Cleveland. Which will build the strong, resilient core that’s vital to Cleveland’s overall health and growth.
More wealth, more life
That’s one way fast, frequent train service could transform Cleveland.
Consider that a single lane of interstate carries about 3,000 travelers an hour—but only in good weather and with no accidents or congestion to slow things down. By contrast, a single, high-speed-rail track with roughly the same footprint can safely carry upwards of 12,000 passengers an hour (even in bad weather) and deliver them right to the heart of downtown—instead of airports and parking garages.
And what happens when more people begin arriving regularly in downtown train stations?
What happens is a whole lot of economic exchange. People visit their primary destination and then walk, scooter, bike, taxi, or take transit to nearby stores, bars, restaurants, and museums. The effects ripple out across the community, creating a virtuous cycle of wealth-building.
That’s “wealth” in the broadest sense. It’s not just that trains boost nearby property values. That happens, too. But it’s important to be clear about cause and effect. Property values increase—and economies grow—because trains build a strong civic core. They do that by bringing people together, creating connections, and transforming acres of parking lots into places of life.
Dig deeper, Cleveland
This isn’t wish-casting or baseless speculation. There’s actual data on it.
China’s massive investments in high-speed rail over the past two decades, for example, have provided plenty of opportunities to study the economic and social effects of HSR.
One study focused on the question of whether HSR improved “urban livability.” It found that it did, in three concrete ways: By promoting economic growth, talent agglomeration, and industrial structure upgrading. In other words, HSR incentivizes investment in the buildings where people work in and make things. And it brings more skilled workers into closer contact in urban spaces. The result is strong economic growth.
Another study found that “economic growth in cities with operational high-speed lines was significantly higher than those without high-speed rail.” The effect was particularly strong in bigger cities, “highlighting their stronger ability for economic agglomeration and growth potential.”
These studies focus on the impacts of high-speed rail, but the effects hold true for fast, frequent conventional trains as well. And that would be a great place to start for Cleveland—i.e., pushing for faster, more frequent service on the two Amtrak lines that barely serve the city.
One of those lines—the Lake Shore Limited—runs from New York to Chicago. It’s one of the most promising corridors in the nation for a high-speed line. So, Cleveland should be a strong leader and champion for getting one underway. In the meantime, better conventional train service would pay big dividends. Four daily, Lake Short Limited roundtrips would be a great start. That would be a base level of service at key travel times, and it wouldn’t require substantial investments in new track.
The Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency (i.e., Cleveland’s metropolitan planning organization) has applied for federal funds to begin planning for additional trains to Chicago and New York, but they can’t do this on their own. But Cleveland’s fate is key to the health of state’s economy, and this should also be a top state-level priority. Local agencies can’t do all the heavy lifting, and they shouldn’t have to.
Which means Gov. Mike DeWine needs to fund serious studies of adding Amtrak frequencies from Cleveland to Chicago, Detroit, and New York. And, he should work with Congress to put expanding the Chicago-New York and Chicago-D.C. lines at the top of Amtrak’s near-term agenda. Fast, frequent, and affordable trains in those corridors would be game-changing for Cleveland, for Ohio, and for the whole region.
Local champions will step up if statewide leaders do their part. Cleveland is justifiably proud of what it has going on, and it seems serious about taking things to the next level. The Rock Hall, for example, is in the middle of an overhaul aimed at securing its future as “an international landmark.” More than 110 foundations, corporations, and individuals are supporting the project. And a variety of organizations serve as vocal and effective boosters for the city in general. One notes on its website that “recent trends such as the $16+ billion invested in infrastructure improvements have reaffirmed our efforts to come together as a community and work toward mutual success.”
But the kind of “mutual success” Cleveland aims to achieve demands a different kind of investment and a deeper kind of commitment. The same-old same-old won’t get it done.
The good news is that massive opportunities are right there, waiting to be seized. Trains offer a proven, high-impact tool for creating a stronger, more resilient core in Cleveland—and building an even better place to work, play, and start a business in.
There’s a way. Is there the will?