Who Says You Can't Teach An Old Dog New Tricks?

Train Station
Who says you can't teach an old dog new tricks? Here's one we can: A new opportunity for Lakewood and the West Shore in the use of an infrastructure that has been here for 150 years. The opportunity is commuter rail, and the infrastructure is the familiar track through town. More about the opportunity later, but first, some history. Don't worry, there is no test.

Railroads have been a part of Lakewood since before Lakewood was Lakewood...back when it was Rockport Township. (The Hamlet of Lakewood was formed in 1889.) On the southeast corner of town, by Birdtown, runs what was originally built in 1853 as The Junction Railroad Company. In 1869, it became part of the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern Railway. It later became part of the New York Central (1914), Penn Central (1968), Conrail (1976), and now Norfolk Southern (1999).
This story, however, concerns the railroad with which Lakewoodites are most familiar. It runs east and west, between Detroit Avenue and Clifton Boulevard, the entire length of the City. Here is its history.

The Rocky River Railroad Company began operations in 1868. It ran from the end of Cleveland's horsecar line, near Bridge Street and Waverly Avenue (now W.58 St.), into Rockport Township. The railroad stopped at the east (Lakewood) bank of the Rocky River, but did not cross the river. There were station stops known as Whippoorwill, Webb's Crossing, and what was then known as Rocky River station, on the east bank of the river. The line then swung to the south and terminated at the Cliff House, which was located in the area of what is now Sloane and Edanola Avenues.

About a half mile north, the railroad operated an amusement park and beach. The R.R.R.R. had three steam engines, three coaches, and four open excursion cars. It ran year 'round, but did a heavier summer business of picnickers, anglers, and bathers. The normal daily schedule was 10 trains a day, but summer Sundays increased traffic to 17, with extras as needed.

The New York, Chicago & St. Louis Railroad was organized by a banking syndicate in
New York City in 1881 to build a railroad connecting Buffalo (NY) to rail centers in Chicago and St. Louis. Its founders set out to compete with the empires controlled by arch-rival railroad barons William Vanderbilt and Jayson Gould. Much of the railroad was new construction, but much was acquisition and consolidation of existing railroads. One of those acquisitions was the Rocky River Railroad, in 1882.

To the west, the Rocky River gorge had presented an obstacle to other railroad builders. The N.Y., C. & St. L. crossed it with a 673 foot, 88 foot high, single track wrought iron viaduct. The first bridge was later replaced by the current double track bridge. One of the abandoned pillars from the original bridge still stands beneath the current bridge.

Reporting on the competition between Bellevue and Norwalk for the route of the rail line, the Norwalk Chronicle referred to the railroad as a "...double tracked nickel-plated railroad." Bellevue got the railroad and is today home of a modern yard, engine, and car facility. The name Nickel Plate stuck and the New York, Chicago & St. Louis Railroad was known as the Nickel Plate Road right up until it was bought by the Norfolk & Western Railway in 1964. Norfolk & Western merged with the Southern Railway in 1982 to form Norfolk Southern (NS).

Passenger trains ran on the Nickel Plate throughout its history. The Nickel Plate ran quality, full service passenger trains that connected at Buffalo with eastern railroads to New York City and Boston. The Nickel Plate Road did not offer commuter service, however some of its passenger trains ran east into Cleveland in the morning and west in the evening, enabling some local folk used them as commuters. The railroad even dressed up the station in Rocky River with colorful neon signs. The Nickel Plate's Rocky River station still stands on Depot Street and is still used by NS as a storage site.

The railroad was also paralleled on Clifton Boulevard and Detroit Avenue by interurban and street car lines. The West Clifton rail overpass allowed the interurban Lake Shore Electric Railway to pass below on its way from Clifton Boulevard, to Sloane Avenue, to the old Detroit Bridge. Once in Rocky River, the Lake Shore Electric passed under the Nickel Plate again at a viaduct now used by Smith Court. It then ran west between Detroit and Lake Roads.

The last interurban line to operate in Ohio, the Lake Shore Electric Railway ceased operation in 1938, yet telltale signs are still visible: The right-of-way ran in the middle of Beaconsfield Boulevard in Rocky River, pilings for the bridge are still visible in Cahoon Park in Bay Village, Electric Boulevard was built on the right-of-way, and the former car barn building still stands in Avon Lake. A rebirth of interurban-like lines, now called light rail, is underway in metropolitan areas nationwide. Unfortunately, nearly all the interurban-era infrastructure is lost and reacquiring rights-of-way and rebuilding is very expensive.

The Van Sweringen brothers, famous builders of Cleveland Union Terminal and the Terminal Tower, bought the Nickel Plate Road in 1922. During that time, the railroad was depressed below grade for 2 1?2 miles from West Boulevard to the area of Fulton Road, a point on the railroad known as Cloggsville. (Remember this name and location for later reference) The current Rapid Transit Red Line, built RTA forerunner CTS (Cleveland Transit System) in the 1950s, was able to run adjacent to the Nickel Plate because the depression was built wide enough to accommodate a West Side Rapid Transit envisioned by the Van Sweringens. This Rapid Transit, much like the Shaker Rapid the Van Sweringens also built, would have run along side the Nickel Plate to the west end of Lakewood, possibly beyond. The Great Depression put an end to the Van Sweringen era and their dream of a West Side Rapid Transit. For decades later, the Nickel Plate and N&W owned properties along the north side of the right-of-way through Lakewood originally intended for that purpose.

Through the years, the Nickel Plate Road served businesses and industries along its line through the West Shore. In Lakewood, this included sidings to set out and pick up cars for businesses that where located near Hird Avenue, Cove Park, the Westerly, and Sloane Avenue. The last siding in Lakewood served the old Bahr Lumber yard on Hird Avenue into the early 1990s.

After buying the Nickel Plate, Norfolk & Western operated the passenger trains on the line until the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, commonly known as Amtrak, was created and took over most of the nation's passenger trains in 1971. Amtrak opted not to use the Nickel Plate route.
The Nickel Plate line through Lakewood was a double tracked until the 1990s. The old signal system, known as Automatic Block Signals, provided for inefficient, one-way traffic on each track. The northern track was westbound and the southern eastbound. Norfolk Southern (NS) took up the northern track and rebuilt the remaining track with stronger, heavier rail. NS also installed new Centralized Traffic Control signals, which allow trains to operate in both directions, on a single track, more efficiently. East and west of Lakewood, portions of the old second track remain as passing sidings.

Most obvious and important to the public was the installation of crossing gates and bells.
These were part of the agreement between Cleveland and West Shore cities with Norfolk Southern at the time of the Conrail purchase. The last record of a car struck by a train in Lakewood was in 1999.

The public should also get some assurance in that Norfolk Southern is a well-run, safely operated railroad. The company has received awards from such major shippers as the United Parcel Service for its performance. On a recent Operation Lifesaver train, NS employees took great pride in referring to their railroad as the safest in North America. The bragging right is based in the fact that for an unprecedented 17th consecutive year, NS has won the industry's coveted E. H. Harriman Memorial Safety Award.

Since acquiring the former Conrail trackage elsewhere, and in compliance with the agreement with the communities along the old Nickel Plate, NS has shifted most through trains to the previously discussed main line in the southeast corner of Lakewood. Trains are switched off the old Nickel Plate line to a rebuilt connection from Cloggsville to Rockport Yard, and return at Vermillion. This has left the Nickel Plate track between Cloggville and Vermillion, through Lakewood, a secondary line with about a half dozen trains a day.

For years, the Nickel Plate line between Cleveland and Lorain has been viewed as having great potential for commuter rail. This rail line is well maintained, the signals are modern, and the line now it is used far under capacity.

As residents throughout Northeast Ohio continue to suffer from out auto-dependant transportation system, consider the following:

Over 250,000 people live in communities along the Nickel Plate corridor.

Gas has recently hit $3.00+ a gallon and could easily return, and exceed, that figure. The AAA estimates automobile operating costs at over $.50 a mile. Behind housing, vehicles are our greatest expense.

Trains are quieter, faster, more comfortable than busses. Commuter rail is time competitive with driving, and cheaper.

Trains are less prone to weather disruptions that other forms of transportation. Minor traffic accidents at W. 25 can tie up I-90 as far back as Rocky River. The stretch of I-90 between Berea and Fulton Roads has been identified as a "hot spot" with over 200 accidents over the last 3 years.
Time is more productive riding than driving. In other parts of the country, Wi-Fi enables people to work while riding instead of driving. Amtrak is making its Boston-New York- Washington trains Wi-Fi capable. RTA is currently planning television news and events on Rapid Transit trains.

Another reason to look at commuter rail is that it may never be a better deal. Right now, in Chicago, there is an opportunity to obtain used, conventional commuter rail equipment at bargain prices. Chicago's Metra operates commuter trains over freight railroads throughout Chicagoland and Illinois. Metra is currently selling older, but maintained commuter passenger cars for as little as $1 each. How can that be? Built in the 1960s with integrated aluminum and steel bodies, the cars are labor intense to scrap. As Metra is bringing newer cars on line, they are looking for buyers for these. So far, Albuquerque, Nashville, and Salt Lake City have purchased used Metra cars and are starting new commuter rail routes. At the same time, Amtrak, whose budget has been under attack by the White House in recent years, is selling late model passenger engines for a faction of original cost. Nashville's commuter rail line, known as the "Music City Star, began service on September 18, 2006, using used Amtrak engines and Metra passenger cars.

As in Chicago, the discussion here envisions trains consisting of one engine and a number of passenger cars. These trains are operated in a push-pull mode. In one direction, the engine pulls the train in the conventional manner. Going in the opposite direction, the engine pushes and the engineer operates the train from a control cab in what was the last car of the train. This creates greater efficiency in that the train does not have to be turned around.

There is also an economic development piece to commuter rail. This occurs in other parts of the county where new commuter rail is going on line as well as in areas with older, established commuter rail. Property values can be expected to rise where stations are located. In Denver, new housing and retail is being built and sold adjacent to a new commuter line months before it even opens. Our potential commuter rail line would have stops from Cleveland, downtown Lakewood and Rocky River, on the borders of Westlake/Bay Village, Avon/Avon Lake, and Sheffield/Sheffield Lake, and into downtown Lorain. In turn, that brings downtown Lakewood back onto a corridor of travel that I-90 diverted - without the cars.

Notwithstanding economic development, commuter rail has improved the quality of life in other communities by reducing noise pollution. In Chicago, for example, commuter rail lines have double gates that fully block streets, highways, and pedestrian walkways. Other intersections have barriers in the center of the roadway; both prevent motorists from going left-of-center to go around lowered gates. This also increases grade crossing safety. Crossings also have bells that give an audible warning at far lower decibel levels that today's diesel horns. As a result, commuter rail can increase eligibility for government dollars to establish quite zones that conventional freight lines do not.

A quiet zone also has potential positive economic impact in a community. It has been estimated that quiet zones can raise property values within 1,000 feet of a railroad by 2-8%.
As long as we're talking about crossings, keep in mind that a commuter train blocks a crossing for about 40 seconds. That's from the time the gates activate until the time they go back up. This is less than many traffic signals at intersections. Each of the below listed traffic signals take 80 seconds for full each cycle. The time the cross street is red, a street that a commuter rail train would cross, is as follows:Belle Avenue: At Clifton, 66 seconds red for Belle. At Detroit, 51 seconds red for Belle. At Madison, 56 seconds red for Belle. Warren Road: At Detroit, 59 seconds red for Warren. At Franklin, 50 seconds red for Warren. At Madison, 41 seconds red for Warren.
So we can see that a commuter train stops traffic on a given street for less than existing traffic signals. This is also far less than a freight train, which can average 200+ seconds, some more.
Another consideration is the environment. One three car train can have a capacity of 450 people. That takes hundreds of single occupant cars off the road, which is mostly what we see during rush hour. In turn, it also reduces the pressure for parking spaces and we know how parking has been a business issue in Lakewood. Using existing railroad infrastructure reduces the stress on road and related infrastructures. Commuter trains are 7 times more fuel efficient that cars and 9 time more fuel efficient that SUVs. Five Cleveland-Lorain round trips a day have the potential of removing 90,000 pounds of vehicle produced pollutants per year.

Although the fuel efficiency trains have over buses is not that significant, but they are more productive in that it would take 10 busses with 10 drivers to haul the same number of passengers that one commuter train with a crew of 3 can haul.

Who would run these trains?

Illinois has Metra, New Jersey has NJ Transit, and New York has Metro North. Regional or State agencies are running commuter trains around the country. Unfortunately, this is another area where Ohio lags behind, so we cannot count on the state. There are, however, some players where a consortium could be created. Greater Cleveland RTA, Lorain County RTA, and Lorain Port Authority have all attended West Shore commuter rail meetings. Norfolk Southern has expressed interest in talking about commuter rail on their line and is willing to be considered as an operator. NS obviously knows how to run trains and already has the facilities to service, repair, and store trains.
How much?

Start-up costs have been estimated as low as $13 million. First year operating cost are estimated at $1 to 3 million. Although nothing to sneeze at, we spend hundreds of millions on various road projects, RTA Rapid Stations, and the $200+ million Euclid Corridor project. The Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) is currently involved in its most expensive project ever, a $200+ million, so-called "signature" bridge over Toledo's Maumee River. That will be topped by a proposed $500+ million Innerbelt "signature" bridge in Cleveland. Compared to these, commuter rail is surely affordable.

What needs to happen now?

Discussion and dialog should continue among stakeholders, both public and private. Lakewood Community Progress, Inc. (Main Street) is at the table. Lakewood Hospital is in favorable; Mayors Thomas George of Lakewood and Dennis Clough of Westlake, and Lorain County Commissioner Betty Blair have expressed support, and members of Lakewood and Cleveland City Council have attended meetings.

Those who like to talk regionalism should weigh in. This is an opportunity to foster true regionalism without threatening the various communities' autonomy. Commuter rail is the type of initiative progressive, successful urban areas around the country have done, and are doing. It goes hand in hand with other initiatives in Lakewood, such as becoming a bicycle-friendly community.
Next, the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency (NOACA) needs to conduct the next phase of a feasibility study. NOACA previously did an initial study, but now a more comprehensive study is necessary. There are also environmental impact studies.

Longer term, Ohio needs to rethink its transportation priorities. A 2004 ODOT study showed that states with similar size and demographics put Ohio to shame in terms of money spent on trains and busses:

Pennsylvania, population 12.4 million, spends $63.29 per person.
Illinois, population 12.7 million, spends $61.25 per person.
Michigan, population 10.1 million, spends $20.73 per person.
Lagging behind is Ohio, population 11.5 million, spends just $1.58 per person.

In fact, the State of Pennsylvania actually invests more in Transit for just Pittsburgh than Ohio does for the entire state.

In 2003, the Transportation Advocacy Committee of the Greater Cleveland Growth Association analyzed transportation funding policies in Ohio and encourages the Governor and General Assembly to start talking about non-highway related transportation projects in Ohio.

In closing, this commuter rail opportunity is one we should not squander. Too often, the defeatist or negative attitude predominates in Greater Cleveland. We often talk about what we had and what could have been. Here is an opportunity to go for something we can have. There are too many potential positives in this opportunity not to be explored. There's a scientific term for something like this - "no brainer."
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Volume 2, Issue 19, Posted 9:09 PM, 09.29.06