If you want to take the train from Cleveland to Chicago on any given weekday, a distance of approximately 350 miles, you have two options. You can catch the Capitol Limited departing at 2:59 a.m. or the Lake Shore Limited at 3:45 a.m.
Supposing you do not want to catch a train in the middle of the night that will take approximately seven hours to cover 350 miles—assuming you don’t get stuck behind freight trains which happens on a not infrequent basis, lengthening the trip by at least an hour—you’re either driving or flying.
Ken Prendergast has been fighting to change this since the 1980s. As Executive Director of All Aboard Ohio, a group that advocates for better transit in the Buckeye State, he’s been trying to get more and better Amtrak service between the two cities for years. In the grand scheme of things, this would not cost that much money. With basic track upgrades, running some more trains, and prioritizing passenger over freight rail, taking the train to and from Chicago could be a much more reasonable proposition.
“You could run the train at 90 miles an hour and cover the distance between Cleveland and Chicago in five hours or less, which would beat the car, certainly on a snowy day like today,” Prendergast told me over the phone.
Now, Prendergast must contend with a new, unlikely foe: the Hyperloop boosters.
This week, the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency and Hyperloop Transportation Technologies released a feasibility study that analyzed a Hyperloop route from Pittsburgh to Chicago via Cleveland. Separately, the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission has partnered with Virgin Hyperloop One to study a route also from Pittsburgh to Chicago but via Columbus, although a spokesperson for MORPC told Jalopnik the final report will not be ready until next year.
“We have a lot of needs right now,” Prendergast lamented, “And Hyperloop is sucking a lot of the oxygen out of the room.”
You may not know what a Hyperloop is. That’s OK, because it doesn’t exist yet. It’s a theoretical transportation system that will propel people and freight in pods via magnetic levitation through a low-pressure tube.
As such, a Hyperloop feasibility study is a strange document, somewhat like studying the conservation of the unicorn population after a few people strapped a horn onto a horse. As of this writing, Hyperloops have not transported any humans. The maximum speed a test pod has reached is 288 mph, well short of the advertised maximum velocity of 650 mph, or 700, or even 750 (the number varies article by article, not exactly a reassuring testament to the precision of their estimates). That tremendous hypothetical speed is the basis of why Hyperloops would be a better investment than, say, high speed rail.
And boy, would it be a better investment, the Hyperloop people say. According to the feasibility study, such a Hyperloop would yield a $74.84 billion increase in property values along the route, $47.57 billion increase in personal income, and 931,745 new “man years” over 25 years (this is not the same as 931,000 new jobs, as had been reported in other outlets; it is equivalent to about 37,000 new jobs).
That all sounds real good except it’s also totally unclear how they arrived at these numbers. Despite the study’s 156-page length, it is extremely light on methodology or the assumptions baked into the calculations. In fact, any mention of study methodology or assumptions directs inquiring minds to an appendix. However, the feasibility study does not have an appendix, nor does the study’s landing page on NOACA’s website.
When Jalopnik asked NOACA for the appendix, a spokesperson replied, “there are no appendices at this time as part of the release as it will be added at a later date (ie fare costs, station locations, etc.).”
This lack of detail jumped out at experts Jalopnik spoke to about the study. “From what I can tell, their analysis is largely theoretically based, not empirically based, said Lauren Fischer, Assistant Professor of Urban Planning and Policy at the University of North Texas. “We’re supposed to take this on faith that this is a good idea.”
On top of the fact that the findings seem to have materialized out of thin air, the study succumbs to many of the same fallacies that make other economic impact studies bunk. There is no indication in the study that the authors accounted for the substitution effect, a basic economic principle that money spent or jobs created in one location or area often comes at the expense of somewhere else.
“There’s a long tradition of economic impact statements for major development projects using numbers that are, shall we say, highly speculative,” said Neil deMause, an independent journalist who has spent decades reporting on publicly financed sports stadiums and has studied dozens of such economic impact statements.
“The best studies are the ones that are transparent about how they do their math,” deMause continued, “and take into account negative consequences like economic activity that ends up getting cannibalized from other areas. The worst just throw a bunch of numbers on paper and say, ‘Don’t worry, everybody, this’ll be great!’ Unless there’s some explanation of methodology that the Hyperloop people left in their other pants, this looks more like the latter.”
This study cost $1.3 million, $600,000 of which came from the Cleveland Foundation, the Ohio Department of Transportation, the Ohio Turnpike and Infrastructure Commission and the Richard K. Mellon Foundation of Pittsburgh at the behest of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies.
Fischer lambasted the public agencies involved for using taxpayer money for the purpose of a “totally unrealistic” idea to serve the goals of a private transportation company. “That is not a good reason to spend money on things!”
While the Hyperloop boosters do their thing spending millions of dollars studying a transportation project that can be described as futuristic at best and batshit at worst, the Cleveland transportation system itself has some dire needs. Five trains broke down in the last week alone, a reminder that the aging fleet desperately needs to be replaced. In September, Browns fans were additionally humiliated above and beyond being Browns fans by hours-long delays getting home from the game.
Prendergast finds it frustrating that there’s money and political backing to study a non-existent transportation system but not to buy new trains or run them more often.
“We, frankly, don’t know any better,” Prendergast surmised. “We don’t know what higher speed transportation looks like. There’s this inclination to jump on this thing because the whole idea of passenger rail is an abstract concept to most Ohioans. It is so far out of the realm of daily consciousness.”
For its part, NOACA and HTT jointly applied for a $5 million grant from the Federal Railway Administration to conduct an environmental impact study, a necessary precursor to getting shovels in the ground. Should that cost be split evenly as the feasibility study was, it might mean millions of public dollars going towards another Hyperloop study before the technology has even been fully tested.
Prendergast is happy to talk about building a Hyperloop if it transports humans on a limited test track at full speed. Until then, he’ll keep fighting the good fight to get an Amtrak train that departs Cleveland for Chicago at a reasonable hour.
“If we just had several round trips a day, that would be a movement in a positive direction,” he said. “And that’s all we’re trying to get, is some positive movement.”