Midwestern rail transit tends to evoke imagery of rusted steel and graffitied cargo cars—not exactly the picture of the speedy, sparkling passenger rail of the future. And yet railroad advocacy has hit a stride in recent years, especially with the Green New Deal’s emphasis on implementing widespread high-speed rail in the U.S. and Amtrak’s recent proposal to open five new passenger rail routes in Ohio. While it might be hard to believe today, Ohio was once the center of innovative public transit—more specifically, electric interurban rail, which had a brief but vibrant life as a transition between main-line railroads and automobiles for short-distance travel.
“The story of [the interurban’s] meteoric rise and equally sudden demise, and of the role it played in the transportation picture of its day, is a drama rarely rivaled in the economic history of the country,” writes Thomas Patton in Lake Shore Electric Railway.
Interurbans, as their name suggests, are small trains run on electrified lines connecting major cities and small towns, and they were a popular method of transportation throughout the country in the late 19th and early 20th century. Interurbans in Ohio seem to be little more than a blip in transportation history, and yet their popularity, efficiency and socioeconomic benefits remain nearly unrivaled in the state. With Ohio’s near-total reliance on private car travel and little opportunity for public, inner-city—let alone interurban—transit today, the question remains: what happened, and what’s next? Why did such a popular transit method disappear, and how can its story help guide us forward? This two-part series endeavors to begin to answer these questions and consider the past, present and future of public transit in the Midwest.